Reimagining America’s Iconography, One Community at a Time

Land, community, freedom—these are the bedrocks upon which the founding of America rested; they also lie at the heart of the collaborative practice of Mel Ziegler and the late Kate Ericson, whose unique brand of Americana comes to Galerie Perrotin’s New York gallery this week. The duo, partners in love and art, traveled across the United States, from Texas and the Carolinas to Pennsylvania, D.C., and New York City, in pursuit of projects capable of sparking timely social and political discourse—long before social practice and relational aesthetics had become the phrases du jour.  

Among several iconic works on view at Perrotin, spanning the breadth of their collaborative endeavors, from the late 1970s until Ericson’s untimely death in 1995, is Dark on That Whiteness (1988), a wall design composed of 173 small round jars filled with paint, whose contents, from a distance, might recall a spice rack populated with the terracottas and ochres of turmeric and saffron, or a series of spools of thread. In fact the colors correspond to those of the federal buildings or monuments around the National Mall in Washington, D.C.,—the heart of America’s political machinery and historical landmarks—their position within the overall composition mapping out their location within the park. Inscribed with the name of their respective paint manufacturers, each glass jar pays homage to the makers, craftsmen, and laborers upon whose hard work the American nation has been built. 

In their re-imagination of the country’s iconography, Ziegler and Ericson also looked forward—to future generations of Americans—as well as to the country’s rich past. For Peas, Carrots, Potatoes (1994–6), the pair created a U.S. flag with 364 jars of baby food, arranged by color to form the stars and stripes, undercutting the muscular nationalism embedded in this symbol of America, with allusions to the unformed babbling sounds of the country’s youngest generation (the googoo-gaga sounds of babies are sandblasted onto the jars’ surfaces). 

Elsewhere in the show, a work on paper sketches out the couple’s plan for their 1991 site-specific public artwork in Charleston, South Carolina, in which they had a house, located just outside the city’s historic district, painted in a camouflage design of colors approved by the Charleston Board of Architectural Review, playfully intervening into and sending up the rigid mandates of the organization. Invoking the DIY spirit and communalism at the core of American culture, Give and Take (1986) showcases a selection of broken tools found by the artists in Central Park in 1986, which Ziegler and Ericson sold, giving 30% of the sale price back to the park for the purchase of more tools. 

Regularly engaging local sites in which communities have a stake, the duo’s practice was as much about organizing and the exchange of labor as it was about the finished product. “We are interested in an art that can be part of a common experience,” they once said. “We want our work to be pragmatic, to deal with pre-existing social systems, and to carry on a dialogue with the public.” 

Tess Thackara

Kate Ericson & Mel Ziegler” is on view at Galerie Perrotin, New York, July 8–August 22, 2014, with a public opening Tuesday July 8, 5–8pm. 

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