Mel Ziegler

Mel Ziegler

Exhibition: Dec 9, 1999 – Jan 16, 2000


 

Personal Read, one of Mel Ziegler’s two works at Artpace, is a forty-foot flatbed truck trailer carrying nearly 100 wired and lit standing lamps. Found objects that Ziegler acquired in San Antonio, the lamps radiate warm light, variegated and enriched by the colors of their globes and shades. They are also idiosyncratic physical shapes, composing a chorus of styles—nostalgic imitations of candle- and oil-based lamps predating the electric grid, bulbous ’50s ceramics, elegant spans of modernist stainless steel. Some are short, some tall, some sleek, some homely. Seen in a group, they gain anthropomorphic presence, becoming a crowd of personalities. They further trace decades of history—the histories of domesticity and of design.

At Artpace, Personal Read has a double oddness: standing lamps rarely stand on a flatbed trailer, and a flatbed trailer rarely sits in a gallery. Human in scale, friendly in form and function, the lamps butt up against the massive physicality of the trailer, which through its placement in the gallery itself invites the gaze we use for art. It turns out, as you might expect, to have its own brute integrity. It also points to another aspect of Personal Read: one night at the end of the show, Ziegler plans to park the trailer outside San Antonio’s great historical landmark, the Alamo, and photograph it there. Outdoors, the trailer will seem more at home, and closer to the potentials it embodies: mobility, strength, speed, transience, the highway.

Ziegler’s work, and his collaborations with his late wife, Kate Ericson, mediate between private life and public concerns, between personal aesthetics and the social world. MoMA Whites (1990), for example, a row of jars of paint in subtly different shades of white—the shades preferred by different curators for the walls of New York’s Museum of Modern art—simultaneously indexes the time-honored art of painting, the more recent aesthetic principle of serial repetition, and the modernist gallery space (the “white cube”), while also suggesting that all these are not enough—that in looking at art, one also needs a sense of the web of organization and bureaucracy, and of bureaucratic idiosyncrasy, that provides art’s setting. Personal Read, similarly, invokes not only the private life of the hearth but the encompassing social environment. The Alamo—the mission and fort that Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie died to defend against Mexican soldiers, in 1836—is often called the birthplace of Texas. A monument in the state’s public life, it lies at the core of a large political mythology. It is also, Ziegler points out, “an icon of the San Antonio tourist industry,” and is theatrically lit at night with a hard white light. Juxtaposing this light with the warm light of the lamps, which signify “a whole other space in which lighting operates,” Ziegler sets public against private, charged history against home.

In art terms, the flatbed trailer is an outsized form of dais, or sculptural pedestal, and perhaps a witty reference to what Leo Steinberg called Robert Rauschenberg’s “flatbed picture plane.” It is also a flatbed trailer, and Ziegler has used one before. In 1984, for a piece called Instant Landscape, he parked a trailer supporting eighty live juniper trees on a New York street for a month—a temporary forest, without a wait to grow. Raising Capital, in Warsaw in 1991, was a trailer planted with a vegetable garden. Come and Go, in 1998 in Cleveland, was the first of these works to use light: five street lamps stood on a trailer parked in a once-industrial neighborhood that had moved upscale, so that the city was replacing existing street lamps with fancier ones—historical replicas, which Ziegler set on his truck. In Cleveland, says Ziegler, the flatbed unveiled “this consumer packaging of the history of the site.” At the Alamo, it gently questions a heavily-invested-in public narrative by suggesting that “nothing’s static. History is always flawed, because it comes from a particular ideology, no matter which. But things can move from one place to another, they’re not always the same. There’s always the possibility of the instantaneous alteration of a place. You can pull up and change things.”

Ziegler’s other work in San Antonio, Taking Measure, was a one-night event (also photographed) that placed him alone in the offices of the Frost Bank, in a high-rise visible from Artpace, during the exhibition’s opening. Here Ziegler installed an electronic time-and-temperature display board in the window of a conference room on the twenty-first floor. The board’s thermometer ran not to the outside air but to Ziegler’s body. San Antonio gets hot in summer, and the outdoor temperature is meaningful information to every citizen; driving around town, Ziegler saw many time-and-temperature boards, which banks, stores, any business eager to catch the eye had put up everywhere—everywhere, that is, that looked prosperous. The poorer the neighborhood, the fewer time-and-temperature boards Ziegler found. In the human body, temperature is a measure of health; a time-and-temperature board may be a measure of the health of a place.

In Taking Measure, Ziegler suggested this correlation by replacing the outdoor temperature with his own. At the same time, just as he does in Personal Read, he put something personal in a public space. The one an electronic readout high in a corporate office building, but linked to the interior of the human body, the other a small army of fragile anthropomorphic objects, both works have a peculiar combination of assertion and frailty, oratory and intimacy. And each in its own way affirms the memorial quality of light.

-David Frankel

All quotations of Mel Ziegler are from conversations with the author in December 1999.

Artist

Mel Ziegler

Austin, Texas, USA

Austin-based Mel Ziegler was born in Campbelltown. PA in 1956.  He received his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and his MFA in sculpture from CalArts. From the late 1970s until her death in 1995, Ziegler collaborated with his partner, Kate Ericson. Their projects created new vocabularies for making art in public spaces, by involving community, examining history and responding to specific sites.
The works or Ericson and Ziegler have been exhibited in a range of venues, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT; and Capp Street Project, San Francisco, CA. Their works were included in the 1989 Whitney Biennial; the 1991 “Places With A Past” public art component at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC; Sculpture Chicago’s 1993 “Culture in Action” project; and the 1999 Museum of Modern Art exhibit, “The Museum is Muse.”
The public nature of Ziegler’s work continues the themes and forms established with Ericson over the course of their collaboration. Sites and histories are methodically researched, as in the case of Camouflaged History for the Spoleto Festival, in which a house was painted in a camouflage pattern in 72 paint colors designated as the “authentic colors of historic Charleston” by the Charleston Historic Society. Projects generally involved public space: in San Francisco, the artists inscribed roofing shingles with San Francisco’s street names and then re-roofed a neighborhood house with the transformed materials.

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Curators

Amada Cruz

Los Angeles, CA
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Kellie Jones

New York, NY
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Nancy Rubins

Topanga, California, USA

Born in 1952 in Naples, Texas, Californian Nancy Rubins received her MFA from the University of California, Davis. She has had numerous solo exhibitions, including shows at Paul Kasmin Gallery, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Venice Biennale Aperto. Rubins’ work was included in the 1995 Whitney Biennial and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’ Helter Skelter exhibit in 1992. Rubins teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Art Department. She has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Tiffany Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Annette DiMeo Carlozzi

Austin, TX
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Dan Cameron

Newport Beach, California

From 2012 to 2015 he was Chief Curator at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California. In 2006, Dan Cameron founded the Biennial Prospect New Orleans, where he worked at until 2011. From 1995 to 2005 he was Senior Curator at the New Museum, New York, where he developed numerous group exhibitions, such as East Village USA and Living inside the Grid, and several individual shows dedicated to the artists Martin Wong, William Kentridge, Carolee Schneemann, Carroll Dunham, Doris Salcedo, José Antonio Hernández Diez, among others.
As independent curator he has organized many exhibitions that brought him international attention, such as El arte y su doble (Fundación Caixa, Madrid, 1987); El jardín salvaje (Fundación Caixa, Barcelona, 1991); Cocido y crudo (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 1995), among many others. In 2003, he was the Artistic Director of the 8th Istanbul Biennial, and in 2006, Co-curator of the 5th Taipei Biennial.
He has published hundreds of texts in books, catalogues and magazines, and has given numerous talks and conferences at museums and universities around the world, also carrying out an important teaching activity in New York.

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Hans Ulrich Obrist

London, England

Hans Ulrich-Obrist is the Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programs and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London, positions created for Ulrich-Obrist in April 2006. As a curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France since 2000, among many other exhibitions he organized solo shows with Jonas Mekas (2003), Anri Sala (2004), and Cerith Wyn Evans (2006). Before this position Ulrich-Obrist was an independent curator for a decade, organizing the group show Take Me I’m Yours at the Serpentine (1995) and Retrace Your Steps: Remember at the John Soane Museum (1999), also in London, England. Ulrich-Obrist was a panelist in 1998 for the 1999-2000 year of artists, and was invited to be a speaker at the 2003 symposium, but was unable to come due to illness.
Photo by Dominik Gigler

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