Not Your Typical Exhibition


ISSUE Magazine: September 2012 | Story by Elena Ivanova

For the mystic what is how.
For the craftsman how is what.
For the artist what and how are one.

— William McElcheran, designer and sculptor.

Art is mysterious.

Like a magic act, a process that brought to life a work of art often appears inscrutable to a non-artist. We marvel at the extraordinary skill of a painter, sculptor, ceramist, glass-blower or print-maker (the list is open-ended since artists are constantly pushing the boundaries of traditional media).

Explore Art: Methods and Materials Revealed: Weft and Warp.                      Courtesy photograph by Will France

It is not often that museums purposefully dispel the aura of mystery that surrounds a masterpiece. Even the customary way of displaying objects in museums — with ample wall space, on pedestals or in glass cases — emphasizes their special nature.  Although this manner of presentation has practical reasons, such as better care and viewing of objects, it also stirs in us a feeling akin to worshipping. After all, the museum derives its name from Mouseion — a temple of muses.

Therefore, all the more important are those instances when museums break away from the tradition and present to the visitor not only the final result of the artist’s work, but the steps that led to it.  “Explore Art: Materials and Methods Revealed,” currently on view at the Stark Museum of Art, provides insights into the intricacies of the creative process in various media.

The featured works have been carefully selected from the collections of both the Stark Museum of Art and The W.H. Stark House. Many objects have been away from the public eye for a long time while some have never been displayed before.

Decorative and applied arts constitute a significant portion of the exhibition: objects executed in glass, ceramics, textiles and metal. Two exquisite molded crystal panels from Lalique glass, founded by René Lalique, mesmerize the viewer with their classical beauty. They feature silhouettes of running men, each figure showing a particular position of the body in the sequence of movements necessary to complete a step. Together these figures simultaneously evoke an antique frieze and Eadweard Muybridge’s slow motion film strip. Next to the panels, examples of pressed, blown and molded glass shine like beacons in the somber interior, thanks to the specially designed pedestals with built-in lights.

Having feasted our eyes on these extraordinary creations, we are ready to learn about the making process which is detailed in the video projected on the opposite wall.

Explore Art: Methods and Materials Revealed: The Art of Glass.                   Courtesy photograph by Will France

Every section of the exhibition is provided with wall labels and technological devices, such as a tablet computer and video projections, which explain the making process, as well as with hands-on stations where visitors may try out some of the art techniques. Predictably, it is the younger crowd that takes advantage of the hands-on opportunities the most. Children immediately get busy working with modeling clay, drawing at the easel or weaving on the Navajo-style loom. Adults usually prefer to explore art by watching videos, but those who try their hands at the art stations gain learning by experience and enjoy the process. And both young and old love to scroll through the pages of artists’ notebooks on a tablet computer.

One of the most fascinating features of the exhibition is the presentation of preliminary or unfinished works side by side with the final painting, print or sculpture. A good example is the section that features work by woodcarver Andy Anderson.  His hilarious and grotesque characters — cowboys, Indians, tourists, convicts, members of the jury and others — have always been favorites with Stark Museum visitors. Now, for the first time, Anderson’s creative process is illustrated step by step, from a rough block of wood to a fully-developed figure. Another highlight is the corner cabinet made by Anderson which serves as a perfect display case for his sculptures.

Probably one of the most amazing discoveries of “Explore Art” is the series of silkscreen prints of American birds by Charley Harper. The artist became famous when these colorful images were first published in 1954 in “Ford Times,” a pocket-size monthly magazine of Ford Motor Company. Later they became available as hand-screened prints. At the first glance, Harper’s stylized and simplified birds may look out of place in the Stark Museum collection, which is well known for highly realistic and finely detailed images of birds by Dorothy Doughty, Edward Marshall Boehm and, of course, John James Audubon. However, a thoughtful comparison reveals an organic connection between their works and Harper’s prints.

Like his famous predecessors and contemporaries, Harper succeeded in creating instantly recognizable images based on a careful observation of birds in nature. The difference between him and the artists working in a more traditional style is best summarized in his own words: “When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see the feathers in the wings. I just count the wings.”

Bright, imaginative and humorous, Harper’s prints celebrate diversity of art forms and the never-ending search for new materials, methods and means of artistic expression.

The exhibition “Explore Art: Materials and Methods Revealed” is on view at the Stark Museum of Art, Orange, through Sept. 22.

The Stark Museum of Art is a program of the Nelda C. And H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation, a private operating foundation, whose other programs include the Frances Ann Lutcher Theater for the Performing Arts, Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, and The W.H. Stark House.

For more information about the museum and the exhibition, visit