Robert Wainstein, at 26, is entering new territory in art. A second-year student in the Williams College / Clark Art Institute graduate program in the history of art, he has curated an exhibition, "In Transit: Between Image and Object," opening this weekend at Mass MoCA. It uses packing crates to address the way artworks and other visual images circulate in the digital age.
The show anticipates the kind of mobile art scene the Toronto native will confront once he graduates in June with a master's degree.
"There are so many ways to access art -- art fairs, biennials, exhibitions as well as off the Internet," he says. "There's a possibility to see lot more art easily (outside of museums) and I think that changes the curatorial practice."
Changes, maybe, but he doesn't see traditional museums fading into a cyberspace cloud just yet.
"We who work in museums know people come for a certain experience. We hope that will go on forever regardless of technology that people want to see the artwork in person."
Wainstein talked about conceiving and organizing "In Transit" in an email interview while traveling to pick up artworks for the show.
Q: Is this your first curated exhibition for a museum?
A: "In Transit" is my first solo undertaking and my first experience working on a loans-based group exhibition. Before enrolling at Williams, I had worked for several years in various curatorial roles helping organize exhibitions.
Q: Can you take us into the kind of thinking that went into planning this exhibition? In this case, how did the topic present itself?
A: The idea for the show evolved from two distinct experiences last winter. While traveling in Sweden with the graduate program as part of the annual winter study trip, I was astonished by the Kabinettschränke (display cabinet) that I saw at the Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala.
I was already familiar with the concept of the Kunstkammer (cabinet of curiosities), which were Renaissance rooms that housed private collections of natural and man-made wonders and are con
sidered precursors to museums. In Upsalla, I discovered a self-contained version in the form of an ornate piece of freestanding furniture. Beautifully crafted from wood and enriched with inset paintings and rare minerals, these cabinets combined storage and display functions, but were also objects of aesthetic value in their own right.
I began to think about modern artists -- conceptual and mail artists -- who had similarly combined artworks with their storage, transport, and display mechanisms.
On my drive back to Williamstown from Toronto some weeks later I visited the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., where I saw a collaborative project by artists Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker (who go by the name Guyton \ Wakker) that incorporates shipping crates with multiple sheets of drywall, paint cans, and canvases. To create the work, the artists repeatedly scanned and printed images on these non-traditional materials. For example, they would print on a paint can label, then roll the can over a flatbed scanner and reprint the image on a sheet of drywall, which would carry the trace of the paint can with it.
This work seemed to speak to the unrestricted and casual circulation of images that I think characterizes visual culture today.
Over the past few years I had noticed a shift in the design of tech products, which place an ever-greater emphasis on user interfaces. Now that there are so many electronic platforms available for viewing the same content, product developers and content providers have become extremely sensitive to how this content migrates between devices and what the user's experience will be.
Guyton \ Walker address this technological development in their art by complicating the normally seamless exchange of visual information between media.
Several months after seeing the Guyton \ Walker work, I encountered Dike Blair's sculptures in an exhibition at Feature Inc. in New York and saw images of Hugh Scott-Douglas' work online. I then scheduled studio visits with the artists and after several discussions, we settled on the works to be included in the Mass MoCA exhibition.
This sequence of events -- by that I refer specifically to seeing Scott-Douglas' work online before experiencing it in person -- actually helped inform the exhibition concept, which looks at differences in the ways that images and objects are reproduced, distributed, viewed, and, ultimately, understood.
Q: You mean to say they were all independently doing art on storage / shipping crates?
A: They were in fact all independently using crates in their work. They arrived at the form of the crate in response to the transience of artworks in today's global art world, with its expanded schedule of biennials, art fairs, and exhibitions.
Dike Blair began using the shipping crate in 2006 as a practical solution to a design problem. The sculptural assemblages that he had been making since the 1990s were delicate and difficult to store and transport safely. He abandoned the light elements and carpeting from his earlier works and began to paint directly on the surfaces of wooden shipping crates.
In 2009, Guyton \ Walker first printed on drywall sheets, which are affixed to the crates they are shipped in. These were part of larger installations that featured imagery printed on exhibition-related materials, such as canvases, paint cans, and drywall.
Scott-Douglas first introduced the road case in 2013 to house his stretched linen prints. These cases serve as mobile walls, which function in the place of the temporary walls that are customarily constructed from drywall for exhibitions and are subsequently destroyed. Scott-Douglas' cases preserve the original exhibition's design, while also facilitating the works' continual transportation and display.
Q: Why choose only these four?
A: Though other artists use crates in their work, I chose these four because of the use of the crate as a support for images, and not just a sculptural form. Another interesting similarity is that the two-dimensional elements transported inside the crates -- mixed media on paper, inkjet prints on sheets of drywall, and linen prints -- are exhibited attached to these same cases' exterior surfaces. This is where the connection to the Kabinettschränkes comes in.
All four artists incorporate the shipping crate into their work, but they use it in very different ways. Dike Blair paints the wooden crates, creating an abstract composition that wraps around the multiple planes of the case. Though these objects still function as crates, they do not immediately resemble them.
On the other hand, the crates in Guyton \ Walker's work are very clearly crates and are treated as such by art handlers and shippers. The markings that can be seen on their surfaces -- chips, scuffmarks, and stamped numbers and symbols -- are from their general use as shipping crates.
Finally, Scott-Douglas' cases are not traditional art shipping crates at all. Instead, he uses custom-built road cases, the type used to transport musical equipment.
There are also significant differences in the way that these artists create the images that are featured on the crates. Blair paints from travel snapshots, which he abstracts using Photoshop. There is a very beautiful and real painterly quality to these painted surfaces.
Guyton \ Walker create smears and snags in the printed images through the deliberate misuse of mechanical reproductive technologies, such as the flatbed scanner and inkjet printer. These instances of mechanical failure stand in for the artists' painterly gesture.
Scott-Douglas gives images new forms, but does not alter the original image in any way.
Q: What parallels do you see between the physical movement of artworks and the digital circulation of visual information? What differences?
A: We are accustomed to seeing artworks in galleries and images online or in print, but we rarely consider the hidden mechanisms that make these objects and images visible. By bringing the shipping crate into the gallery and showing it alongside the contents it carries, these artists draw attention to the worldwide exchange of goods, specifically artworks.
Of course, there are significant differences between the physical movement of artworks and the circulation of visual information. The works in the exhibition contrast the seemingly limitless and almost instantaneous transmission of visual information in the digital age with the comparatively slow, physical transportation of artworks by air, land, and sea.