On The Shelf: Remembering Forgotten Pieces

On The Shelf: Remembering Forgotten Pieces

Much of the Skidmore community is familiar with the high-quality works cyclically displayed at the Tang Teaching Museum. Fewer know just how extensive the assemblage is, surpassing 14,000 objects, and only select staff can take in all the art as a whole—art that seemingly has only the title “permanent collection” in common.

New exhibit The Shelf ignores conventional groupings by time, place, and material to unapologetically divulge a diverse sampling of the Tang’s permanent collection to the general audience. There is little overtly uniform about this exhibit; even a detail as unassuming as the spacing between the works widens and closes without strict pattern.

Its execution does not spiral into chaos over a lack of unity. According to the museum’s website, the mix probes at “distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, between ‘decorative’ and ‘fine,’ or between work made for function or beauty.”

Indeed, the exhibit is successful in stocking its collection with new found meaning. While the planted terra cotta of the Santa Clara Puebloan Double-spouted wedding vase contradicts the neighboring whimsical bend of Wineglass (c. 2010), the shelf they share nevertheless unites their celebratory purposes. The posh Figure in 18th-century garment (19th century) placed peering down the long row of the shelf’s worldly offerings sees a collection unlike anything its porcelain European eyes had seen before.

While the exhibit breaks down structure, it is effective in playing with the innate human obsession to categorize and connect the unorganized and unconnected. The Pitchfork on the right shelf anchors the assortment, towering a couple of feet over Hat Form (c. ?) and other various low-to-the-shelf pieces—mirroring how the Osanyin staff guards over the left shelf of treasures. Additionally, the pop of arsenic green in the untitled work by Eddie Martinez is Little Sprout’s (1996) own echoed down the line.

In short, if a name more specific than “permanent collection” is necessary, The Shelf lays it all down for each viewer to interpret—and reinterpret—as seen fit.

The words “permanent collection” should not be underestimated, however, in the power they reference with regard to the Tang’s history. The Shelf resembles a scrambled timeline with works ranging from the early 19th century to just a couple of years ago. In between the centuries parade the gifts from significant artists and collections somehow touched by the Tang, forever solidified for students, staff, and community members alike to enjoy. The exhibit is as much of a way to remember as it is something new to offer. 

“The Shelf” can be viewed until April 14th, 2019. Companion theatrical performance “Off the Shelf “ will premiere March 27th and run until the 29th.

Photo from Tang Museum Website

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