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Arlene Shechet: The Frick Collection.

Arlene Shechet


In her last New York solo show, in 2013, Arlene Shechet showed clay sculptures in a vein of abstraction that indexed the Rabelaisian--forms here swollen, there constricted, here biomorphic, there ambivalently geometric, the colors sometimes flat and sometimes violent, the surfaces now smooth, now scraped or stucco-like. These objects stood on bases as considered as themselves, in materials from raw wood to cement, in structures from short and stubby to tall and spare, and in heights that brought the tallest works up to a total of almost six feet. What, then, would be the subject of Shechet's next show? Meissen porcelain! Of course! Knew it all along.

Meissen today is synonymous with a certain sort of delicacy, refinement, fragility, purity, and also, it must be said, something like kitsch. This despite its secure place in museum vitrines, its literature of connoisseurship, and our awareness of the skill and care that to this day go into each piece. The factory, in a small town near Dresden, has been in operation since 1710, and continues to produce designs that look back to that era. Although it makes a lot of tableware (whether for nutritive or decorative use is up to the buyer; originally, though, it would mainly have been decorative), Meissen is just as well-known for figurines--sweet little children, animals, eighteenth-century trades-people, and many others; indeed, there are fifty-six pages of them on the company website. (Sphinx with Child, sir? Of course! Just what I was looking for!) Nothing could be further, it would seem, from the values of an artist like Shechet, with her very contemporary ideas of the ugly and the beautiful. Yet in 2012-13, Shechet did a residency in the Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen, and some of the works she made there are on view at the Frick.

They may be hard to find, though, for what is really on view here is less Shechet's sculpture than an overall gestalt. Following a strategy explored by a number of museums in recent years, Frick curator Charlotte Vignon invited Shechet to choose works from the institution's collection (or rather from an independent collection, that of the Meissen collector Henry Arnhold, parts of which are either promised or already given to the museum) and create an installation from them, including works of her own. (Shechet had done something similar at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence in 2014.) Accordingly, working in the Frick's Portico Gallery and using horizontal Plexiglas vitrines, vertical vitrines ascending the walls, and the floor and walls themselves, Shechet installed a carefully chosen group of Meissen tableware and figures from the first half of the eighteenth century, along with an equally careful scattering of pieces of her own.

Given the brilliant whites and vivid colors of porcelain's surfaces, along with the glass cases and the room's long windows facing the garden (where Shechet has ornamented the lawn with a few Meissen animals and birds), light bounces gorgeously around the gallery, making for a fairly heavenly first impression from which the visitor soon turns to the individual objects. The game, inevitably, is to tell the new works from the old, the Shechets from the Johann Joachim Kandlers and Johann Friedrich Eberleins, and this is not always as simple as you might expect, since Shechet used the Meissen factory's molds and worked with the same artisans who produce the commercial lines. But there are giveaway clues: A dancing girl, for example, has two right feet, a sly undoing of both protocol and nature. More illuminating is the placement of a fluted bowl from ca. 1730 above Shechet's Scallop Bowl, 2012, a sculpture not from but of the mold for the fluted bowl--a neat integration of eighteenth- and twenty-first-century sensibilities, with roots in the process art of the 1960s, the interest in turning the making of art into art's subject. In bringing the casting technique into visibility, Shechet is also thinking similarly to an artist like Jasper Johns, whose prints often work the same trick on the reproductive strategies of printmaking. Her installation devices, too-- her placement of objects not just in but on and underneath her vitrines, for example--recall her interest in the base on which a sculpture stands. There is much to be thought about in this marriage of a traditional industry with a contemporary artist's concerns.

--David Frankel
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Author:Frankel, David
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Nov 1, 2016
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