Essay Series

Where What’s Done Comes Undone (Is a Museum) – Ezra Shales

This essay was written by art historian, curator and artist Ezra Shales.

While pondering a student’s question, “Should the art gallery be an adjunct to the temple, factory or department store?,” I realized that I have only ever been interested in the places where touch was permitted and even welcome, where conversation rang out in the galleries to break the religion of quiet and render ineffectual the formality of spotlights. Entrapped in the worrying of insurance claims, we forget to let the museum be a place where the physical world pushes back against us. There are many good ways that artists’ and curators’ interventions have labored to make the art museum less of a mausoleum (Adorno’s critique); some have challenged the nineteenth-century formula with a theoretical dismantling of the remnants of imperialism while others have opted to increase the likelihood of play, comfort and hands-on investigation. Increasingly, I appreciate the disruption that is intrusive but banal, like a child kicking a soccer ball in the rear of a church or the insertion of tangible encounters (so long as it doesn’t resemble a Starbucks lounge). Too often, visitors to art museums are starved of touch until they get to the gift shop. Since I have inveighed against museums’ overly commercialized strategic deployment of artists elsewhere, in this brief essay I hope to focus (with hope, even nurture) admiration for hands-on consumption and production, for the tasting of texture and the fingering of mistakes.[i] Touching things is important to access them but also to sense the way that some things are impregnable, that materials hold their own riddles worth pondering when they cannot be solved.

Households where things of diverse origins jostle into contact and are within reach, the polar opposite of the pristine museum, sustain my curiosity more than the white cube. It is by manually engaging antiquities that we form a sense of participatory authorship. Auctions and flea markets do it better than museums, which might ultimately be hopelessly unproductive institutions educationally, perhaps better left as relics of the long nineteenth century. Growing up, several friends’ homes maintained the unlived living room, where “the best” sofa and carpet were not to be treaded upon, so that the distinction between inhabiting the festive lives of tableware and keeping such pomp stored away for a deferred eternity was clear before I made my first coiled pot. The temple that held untouchable costly artifacts at a remove, upon a pedestal, was not something worthy of intervention or supplication; I leaned toward the house that let goods romp freely.

The first museum where I picked up a tile or a pot and understood these things to be art was in an eighth-floor apartment overlooking the mighty Hudson River, four flights above where I lived with my parents [fig 1]. I touched the joint where glaze clung to a clay body, understood with my lips that faience was softer to the touch than brittle porcelain. Perhaps the proximity of ex votos to cast iron sanitary ware and amphora made the sanctity of the everyday seem like the real challenge of art [fig 2]. The curators and patrons were a husband and wife who taught me the joy of handling a Talavera pitcher or Faenza jug in my palm. Traveling to Mexico and Italy, they brought back tiles and jugs and assembled the most delicious knickknacks. I learned to savor their dishes firsthand as tools for feasting as well as regal eye candy. Photographs of bread and actual loaves adorned the wall, and kneading dough was an occasional live ritual, too. My upstairs neighbors were a couple that both bridged being “makers” and scholars by filling their house with things they loved and bits of loving handiwork that they built or added on to artifacts. Eliding the distinctions between professional and amateur, exhibitions and domestic enrichment, the beautiful and the useful, the house was an environment that nurtured my appreciation for art and simultaneously inhibited the development of clean-cut categorizations. It was hard to differentiate sculpture from toy in the dozens of figurines intermingled across the surfaces of bookcases.

Fig 1. Home in New York after four decades of collecting. Photo: courtesy of D. Fane

 In contrast, when I touch the factory “seconds” from Grueby up on the eighth floor in the neighborly welcoming wunderkammer, I gain entrance to a little place where an off kilter chemistry or firing left puddles and drips and a trail of pathways into knowledge [fig 3]. Or are these a series of windows into process that are framed in my mind as specific sequential acts of labor and workmanship? The exposure of the white body of a Grueby pot still seems exciting and erratic and automatically unseemly –and Grueby pots are inherently somewhat boring. The drip is a fissure in propriety as well as good craftsmanship. In contrast, I think of my students who carefully and self-consciously expose their fuzzy, sometimes flabby and seemingly always tattooed navels or lower backs with a commonplace desire to shock convention. There is no real mystery or degeneracy in the contemporary tattoo shop; it is not a smoky den of sailors and far-flung opium smokers but just one more commodified aspect of our world. In some horrid way, a tattooed allotment of flesh resembles nothing so much as a futile attempt to engage vanity or preserve identity on a headstone. In contrast, admiring the gap between the matte blue glaze and the ceramic body teases out deeper questions about how the fluid becomes rock-like. The exposed flesh of a pot begs more whys; it asks about becoming and also about conservation. While the student who asks about the temple, store and factory seems to know the boutique best of all, they rarely encounter the historical flaw, which is the privilege of the visitor to the museum basement, the auction house or the contemporary version of Miss Havisham’s ruins.

In contrast, my grandmother’s china cabinet seemed hopelessly lacking in exotic animalia and therefore animus. She had little matching sets of Wedgwood jasper teacups and saucers. There were gilt constellations on Royal Worcester and deep blue Copeland with some trickle-down oeil de perdrix, and, encasing it all, a bubble glass cabinet. A key separated my hands from the goods, which she might have used but I know not when. Were we waiting for better company to come knocking on her door? She imparted to me the habit of drinking out of the same glass mug all day, so that shifting from juice to water and back again (and now to coffee five times more in between) was not ritualistic in any delicate manner. But what does that do to the cup? To this day I wonder if my lack of etiquette is barbarous or whether I should rationalize it as an intuitive environmentalism. Her Meissen bull with its broken horns stared out at me through the dusty glass, warning me that the lock had done little to protect her things from moments of carelessness. The formal convention of limiting admiration to ocular interaction perhaps even weakened the development of understanding.

 The material flaw, unlike the human affectation, wonderfully exposes expertise in a wrestling match with dynamic materiality. And what prompts the flawed pot’s preservation? It is an act that is fundamentally human in that it reeks of both selfless humility and egotism or narcissism greater than the tattoo. Was the vase saved because it was already someone’s pot? Or was it kept as a testimonial, as a record of attaining greatness? Initials are scratched onto the base, so the maker could track her production, sort it out from a stacked kiln. How many others knew her mark, read her cipher? Did it have a story of data about the glaze? In fact, this lousy lowly pot bears the cipher RE for Ruth Erickson (born 1883; active 1899-1910), deemed among the most desirable of Grueby’s stable of designers because of her much more grand achievements. But this flawed glaze doesn’t suggest magisterial control, as most tests and prototypes do not.

 In my admiration for this pot’s exposed ankles, I am identifying a specific sense of craftsmanship that is a lacuna, a gap or hole, that gives way to poetic investigation into thingness. It is a window into the larger world as a social context in that it preserves human failure –either our ability to design obsolescence, or behavioral tendency to break things. It expands an environment where fragmentation is commonplace, and our basic wonder at our own fingerprints and footprints as temporal markers, either through the white snow or some wet sand, outnumber the emblem of culture so as to outline some fundamental here we go then.

 The endurance of a lowly brick that has the fingerprints of its nineteenth-century maker is another precise instance where this quality lingers but brings with it grief –this marker records both child labor and exploitation [fig 4]. However, to get back to the sunny side of things, how might the waster of shards or cracked bricks conduct the electric charge of museological intervention? Both flaws suggest that there are deep powerful pathways into craftsmanship that are significant outside of virtuosic artisanal production. Perhaps my admiration for such a brick is comparable to the love for Roman ruins among European travelers on the grand tour multiplied by John Cage’s silent score and inclined upward to the power of a potent stench. Is this simply the Romantic picturesque continuing, the stream of nostalgia trickling onward in time? I like to think that my love for the brick is not entirely aesthetic, and cycles off of the power of its social, historical, tactile and corporeal suggestions more than mere sentimentality or nostalgia.

 What if we think of these exposures of labor as aporia, literally meaning things “without passage”? The gap in the Grueby glaze and the fingerprints in the brick are aporetic in that they incline toward the social context but attest to our inability to fully control the riddle of fertility and generation. “Lacuna,” etymologically related to the word for pond, is used by the textually minded to designate a gap in a manuscript, sometimes intentional but also caused by temporal attrition and scattershot violence, the antithesis of fairy dust. The shard might suggest that a bullet flared through a home or a football ricocheted across a living room recklessly. The glued object or maimed residue was kept on a shelf.

 The meaningful everyday museum intervention that counts is the union of these two sensations, the lacuna and the aporia, that can only be accessed via touch or a mad hysterical laugh echoing out against our staid vitrines. And while there is much written in celebration of the fragment, the lacuna, in running one’s fingers along the dark dead end of a passageway there is also sensate knowledge to be won. Yes, we might remember moments of communion, of deep awe at a visual sight. But maybe we learn more from our mistakes of touch. Our eyes move too fast and don’t slow us down quite the way stroking an artifact can induce an attunement in breathing. The ringing fall, the sound of shards as one of those Mexican tin-glazed earthenware plates fell to the floor in the sun-filled apartment above the Hudson River still echoes in my memory today. Does one hide the fragments by sweeping them up or, in savoring the alternately smooth and sharp edges, embed the lost entity even deeper in the memory?

I hope readers think of Clare Twomey’s work a bit as they plod through this. Only after drafting it did I realize that because the invitation to contribute an essay came from her I had written it in dialogue with her work.

Fig 1. Home in New York after four decades of collecting. Photo: courtesy of D. Fane
Fig. 2
Fig. 3. detail of Grueby pot, manufactured Boston, Massachusetts, circa 1900. Photo: courtesy of D. Fane
Fig. 4. Bricks, manufactured Damariscotta River, Maine, 19th century. Photo: courtesy of Joyce Marinace


[1] See: Ezra Shales, “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman,” Journal of Modern Craft vol. 5, no. 2 (July 2012): 231-236.