History: The Belief and the Disbelief

While having my first (late) encounter with Alloy of Love and Heaven is Being a Memory to Others at the Frye last week, I found myself reading artist Dario Robleto’s labels in partial disbelief, and I thought to myself, “Josiah McElheny has taught me well.” McElheny’s An Historical Anecdote About Fashion was the first piece I experienced by the conceptual glass artist, and it was while viewing that piece I momentarily believed the intricate story included with the glass works to be true.

As Shelia Farr briefly mentions in her review of Robleto’s shows at the Frye, McElheny’s postmodern narratives come to mind when one reads the media listed for Robleto’s works on the exhibition labels:

“Child’s mourning dress made with homemade paper (pulp made from sweetheart letters written by soldiers who did not return from various wars, ink retrieved from letters, sepia, bone dust from every bone in the body”. (Media listing from work A Century of November by Dario Robleto)

Image from the Frye’s website.

My immediate reaction to these labels was to be skeptical. Why use these media when one could simply write a label saying that he or she used them in the piece- does it make a difference? But then, I realized perhaps it was possible that Robleto melted Billie Holiday records into buttons and made his own paper using letters from the Civil War era. The more interesting question then emerged; what matters more: the authenticity of the nature of these objects or one’s belief in that authenticity?

The works of both Dario Robleto and Josiah McElheny can be considered in terms of their relationships with the museum environment. In McElheny’s An Historical Anecdote About Fashion, history is reinvented and reinterpreted through photography, drawings and glass objects transformed by a narrative printed on a label within the installation. Understanding in McElheny’s work is constructed largely though that narrative rather than through the objects’ inherent histories. Likewise, his The Last Scattering Surface (currently on view at the Henry through August 17) begins as a beautiful art object aesthetically bearing relation to stars and the universe through its shape and literally scattered surface. However, the title (and its references to astronomical theory), highly specific dimensions, and inspiration from an actual chandelier again piece together a complex history for this object created in 2006. In many ways, the history of the objects created by the artist is easier to believe than the absence of historical significance within these recently created objects.

Josiah McElheny. The Last Scattering Surface. 2006. Hand-blown glass, chrome plated aluminum, rigging, and electric lighting. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Museum purchase with funds provided by Jan and Howard Hendler. Image courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery. From Art21 Blog.

Like McElheny’s works, Dario Robleto’s art has histories pieced together, but these are new histories created through reconstructed historical objects that resonate with the viewer’s understanding of figures and ideas from popular culture. Letters from fallen soldiers and vinyl records by Billie Holiday are re-envisioned as new artifacts such as buttons and mourning dresses. Viewers that instinctively read museum labels are confronted with a surprising montage of history they never foresaw when first looking at a single, yellow button. In this case, it is easier to reject the true history as false, to understand a button as a button only made meaningful through a carefully crafted label.

from Sometimes Billie Is All That Keeps Me Together, 1998
Shirt, buttons made from melted and recast Billie Holiday Vinyl Records and acrylic spray paint. Dimensions variable. Image from Presentspace.com.

In McElheny’s work, when one does not know the story, it is possible have a seemingly straightforward aesthetic experience of glass dresses created from real dresses or a glass burst inspired by an actual star. When one does not read the labels that are part of Robleto’s art, the buttons and dresses can become seemingly ordinary, yet beautiful, historical objects arranged in an artful manner. When looking at an object with a history based on narrative in comparison with an object that contains history hidden within its structure, the question becomes, which history is more authentic- the one initially perceived as true or the one we initially want to disbelieve but after careful thought can accept? Then, it becomes pertinent to remember we are in a museum, a place of preservation of the real, where many forms of truth both start and end on the page.