Embracing the rustic and the humbly homemade as well as the clash of street spectacle and commercial culture, the new exhibition The Spectacular of Vernacular explores the role of vernacular forms in works by more than two dozen artists. It focuses primarily on pieces made since the 1970s that incorporate—and at times revel in—craft, folklore, roadside kitsch, and other, often-overlooked relics of daily life. The essay below was published in the January/February issue of Walker magazine; it was adapted by Julie Caniglia and Camille Washington from a piece by curator Darsie Alexander in the Walker-designed exhibition catalogue, available at the Walker Shop.
A singular brand of material culture, the vernacular has stood out since the 1960s as an abundant source for artists’ critical interrogations. Never before has there been such a profusion of purchased, found, and otherwise inherited surplus, or such an array of categories by which artists might process and understand this wealth of commodities and castoffs. As European and American artists veered away from the imposing physicality of painting over the past half-century, they have connected with commonplace activities and made use of the residual elements of lay culture as platforms for art.
Too rustic to be called “Pop” and disconnected from the ongoing evolution of Duchamp’s famous readymade, the vernacular represented—and still does represent—something more humble and, significantly, homespun: enduring artifacts such as handmade welcome plaques, amateur snapshots, knitted afghans, and other folksy items that, for better or worse, often carry sentimental associations. Such objects also suggest a world of cozy comforts and heartwarming family moments—associations artists often feel compelled to revise, critique, and upend in ways both humorous and unsettling.
Originally a linguistics expression, the vernacular eventually came to be broadly applied to regionally or culturally specific qualities of architecture, cuisine, or folk tradition. It is in this larger sense that many of its features reflect discourses on contemporary art, such as the casual, informal modes of expression that counter aesthetic hierarchies and traditions; or the idea that, even at a time of sweeping global exchange, material culture derives much of its meaning from its geographic point of origin.
The Spectacular of Vernacular brings together 27 artists whose work fosters a dialogue between contemporary art and the creative manifestations of lay culture. Many draw upon the distinguishing qualities of a place, for example—cultural markers visible in the churches, houses, and roadside attractions—or call attention to rituals and traditions in unusual or provocative ways.
Among them, Minnesota-based artists in the exhibition look to rural architecture and culture. Though Siah Armajani’s identification with buildings “of a certain place” is just one aspect of his work, it is fundamental. For him, the kind of vernacular found in the barns, bridges, and houses of Pennsylvania and New England is the visual vocabulary of a 19th-century ethos characterized by frugality, simplicity, and community—a vocabulary that the artist reshapes into freestanding wood sculptures and enclosures at once deeply evocative and resolutely modern.
Additionally, it’s difficult to sidestep the observation that artists often seem drawn to the absurdist properties of ritual and the normalized values they appear to reinforce. Marc Swanson deals with the gendered nature of boyhood customs such as camping and hunting from the standpoint of an out adult. In his 2010 sculpture Antler Pile (pictured on the back cover), a formation of rhinestone- encrusted antlers evokes disco balls and nightclub décor—a far cry from the taxidermic trophy icons of his New England youth.
Another arena for vernacular objects, such as ceremonial flags and family snapshots, is situated in the industry and practices surrounding death in modern society. Dario Robleto’s art is in visible dialogue with these traditions, stepping out of time to tap 19th-century mourning rituals that today feel both quaint and distant. Positing that “an artist has to remember while others forget,” Robleto positions his art on a long continuum that includes unnamed and unknown makers whose work is typically forgotten: the seamstresses and mothers who prepared memorial wreaths, sewed mourning attire, and braided hair flowers upon the deaths of loved ones, for example. Featuring an assortment of materials ranging from bullets found on the battlefield to vinyl records, the products of Robleto’s craft-based process, which incorporates skills once transmitted from parent to child, would once have been called “labors of love”; today they must be regarded as a tribute to a form of vernacular that has virtually disappeared.
In contrast to older models of vernacular meant for things that wore the patina of age and tradition, another definition was developed in the 1970s that responded to such dramatic shifts in the American landscape as a rise in residential developments, billboard advertising, and strip malls. Decidedly loud, visually pervasive, and dominantly commercial, this newer subgenre is exuberantly embodied by Lari Pittman’s massive painting, A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation #30 (1994). Beckoning with its ballast of colors and slogans, it offers a spectrum of services to be bought and bartered: sex, love, and fast cars, brought to you by two ubiquitous credit card companies whose logos appear on the edges of the canvas like discreetly placed cash-register decals. In this sales world, however, nothing is discreet—least of all the art.
Pittman’s works are testaments to the power of the ornamental, or what he would term “junky secularism.”In some ways, to understand the vernacular is to accept that objects can contain values reflecting prevailing beliefs, class and social standing, and personal background. In this sense, the vernacular is strikingly effective in perpetuating established modes of conduct; hence its frequent association with tradition, simplicity, and craftsmanship—or, in Pittman’s case, consumerism. Yet artists are typically resistant to such assimilation, producing their work to expose the perversity of what is taken for granted in culture. If vernacular itself affirms a cozy comfort in the familiar, the art it inspires is often conceived to do just the opposite. The Spectacular of Vernacular exposes this dynamic between comfort and its subversion with artworks that may appear playful, rambunctious, or cheerfully familiar on their surfaces, but often reveal darker complexities upon closer investigation.