Earlier this year the Los Angeles County Museum of Art decided that it’s costume and textile collection had a lot of stuff it didn’t need, so it deaccessioned. The museum then sold the objects on Feb. 8-9 at auction. Among the buyers was artist Robert Fontenot, who purchased seven lots, about sixty objects in all.
Over the last few months Fontenot has been deconstructing and re-purposing those objects for a project he calls ‘Recycle LACMA.’ He used a packet of 1961 Barbie sewing patterns to turn a LACMA-deaccessioned Korean women’s garment into doll outfits. Guatemalan trousers are now teddy bears. A Korean wedding skirt, which cost Fontenot $73 at auction, became a garment bag. My favorite might be this 1950s brocade evening dress (left), which Fontenot wisely turned into an umbrella (below). Fontenot even found ways to meld LACMA’s ex-collection with a 1972 Datsun, potholders, and a dog bed (with a built-in doggie bone).
For now the project is documented at Fontenot’s Recycle LACMA blog, but Fontenot told me that he’d like to put together a gallery show of the objects. Even better: Fontenot would love to show the works at LACMA.(Fontenot has exhibited in both Los Angeles and New York, at spaces such as Elizabeth Dee, Andrew Shire, QED and Mark Moore. Tomorrow LACMA curator Rita Gonzalez will feature Fontenot’s project on LACMA’s Unframed blog. I’ll post a link here and on Twitter.)
Fontenot is working in a long tradition of artists re-using something old — say a panel painting — into something new — like a newer panel painting. And Fontenot’s project reveals a particular respect for objects: For centuries
artists have been inspired and motivated by previous art and have
included references to their forefathers’ art in their own work. Fontenot is
similarly motivated, but instead of including just references in his
work, he makes his work out of the actual objects that inspired him. (For centuries artists have tried to metaphorically usurp the work of their forefathers, a concept that Fontenot has taken a step further by leaving metaphor out of it altogether.)
But what makes Fontenot’s project so clever, so much fun even is that his work is rooted in institutional critique. That part of the project is so fundamental to Fontenot that he’s stitched LACMA’s accession number for the ‘original object’ into each new object he’s made.
The ‘new institutional critique’ is one of the smartest strains of recent contemporary art. It builds on a genre that was pioneered in the 1970s by artists such as Michael Asher and Fred Wilson, artists who made intensely conceptual work about museums, art about how museums installed art, exhibited art and so on. Their work revealed (and continues to reveal) how
narratives and history are created out of the collection and display of
More recently artists have examined not just collections and
installations, but the full range of ways in which museums operate: The
John Erickson Museum of Art
(‘founded’ by Sean Miller) extends the focus of institutional critique
to membership departments and the nature of traveling exhibitions.
HoMu, Filip Noterdaeme’s Homeless Museum of Art examines the intersection of ethics, Big Money and Big Art.
Fontenot has added deaccessioning to the list of museum practices examined by institutional-critiquing artists — and he’s shown that institutional critique doesn’t have to appeal only to the brain, it can appeal to the eye too. (Even the best Wilsons and Ashers revel in didacticism.)
Which isn’t to say it’s not plenty smart. Fontenot’s project argues that carefully considered collection-culling is the natural order of things, that a museum’s toss-offs can be fuel for artistic creation. Fontenot’s work is a tacit approval of institutional process: When Fontenot remakes a BBQ apron he’s suggesting that the old item was correctly deaccessioned, and that he’s making a new object that might better fit that space in the museum’s galleries, storage locker, collection catalogue and so on. His project says that deaccessioning is normal, motivational, inspirational… and useful.
Previously on MAN: The John Erickson Museum of Art (JEMA) at the Baltimore Contemporary.
Related: Such is the appeal and accessibility of Fontenot’s project that even writers known more for singing lusty odes to museum directors than their interest in contemporary art have picked up on his project.