In 1996, at the age of 26, Anissa Mack entered every single craft category in the Durham Agriculture Fair. This was no mean feat. There were 73 categories in all, in a bewildering range of techniques: woodworking, beading, quilling, spinning, chair-caning, stained glass, and many more. In the end, she did pretty well, carrying off a few blue ribbons and other commendations. But there was a big difference between her and the other fair entrants, and it was not just the volume of her craftwork. Mack was making art.
To understand why she might have done this, it helps to take a step back. Artists of a generation older than Mack’s, who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, often speak of the frustration they experienced with the narrow confines of modernism. They’d been handed a set of instructions from the previous generation, and they felt that those instructions no longer made sense. Formalism and conceptualism seemed arid and dogmatic; the rules had been written from a narrow point of view. It was like a game of chess, with each move taking its meaning from preceding ones. Outliers and individualists were mostly ignored, as were women and people of most non-Caucasian ethnic backgrounds. At a Brooklyn Museum event in 1972, Faith Ringgold was asked to define the word “quality” with respect to art. She replied, “quality is something that a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant man does … Quality is expensive decoration for rich people who happen to be blind.”
It was time for a change. Feminism, the black arts movement, postmodernism: these waves crashed into the institutions of art and thoroughly reshaped them. The process was not easy, linear, or straightforward. Nor was true egalitarianism achieved. White men still dominate the upper echelons of the market, as recent research has shown. Yet increasingly, the restrictive expectations that previous generations faced have evaporated. For many artists, particularly young ones, this has been both a blessing and a new problem. The chessboard has been overturned, and that is all to the good; but in an infinitely permissive environment, how does an artist decide what to do? Within what framework does artistic meaning take place? To work well, many artists feel the need for some new organizing principle. So they simply find or invent one.
For Mack, that armature was the Durham Fair. She was just finishing her MFA at the time; she had boundless energy and ideas, but no real shape to put them in. When she hit upon the idea of using the craft categories, she felt like she’d solved a puzzle. “There was a logic to it,” she recalls, “which I was really craving.” The fair also resonated with her on a personal level. Mack had grown up nearby and been a regular attendee at the fair as a child, often participating competitively (her pet rooster once won first place in the livestock section). The stuff in her house looked a lot like what was on show. Her father had actually lived on the fairgrounds for a time as a young man. Her grandmother had been a pickle judge.
Mack’s craft spree on this familiar ground yielded her a little prize money, but also something much more valuable. She realized that the fair, unlike the contemporary art scene, was an arena in which people felt totally comfortable. The other entrants were unbridled in their creativity. “The best crafts at craft fairs,” Mack says,” are the weird stuff, not the perfectly made needlepoint.” Everyone at the Durham Fair engaged with what everyone else had made: “they felt completely able to articulate what they thought about the objects, out loud.”
The experience stayed with Mack, as did the goal of making truly democratic work. In 2006, on the 10th anniversary of the project, she again entered every category at the fair (the categories had changed slightly, so she had to master a few new skills). The organizers were happy to see her. Country fairs have suffered steady declines in participation in recent decades — they aren’t part of the hip young “crafter” scene — and they were thrilled that Mack had returned to fill out the displays. This time around, she did even better, winning a couple of Best in Show awards.
Now, yet another decade on, Mack has once again returned to the fairgrounds, at least conceptually. But her current exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, entitled Junk Kaleidoscope, is not quite a reprise of her earlier projects. Although the show is full of the imagery of vernacular craft and early Americana, it operates in an oblique relationship to the Durham fair (which is some sixty miles away) rather than taking place within it. The logic of competitive crafting is still present, but in a metaphorical, rather than literal sense. The vernacular culture of the fairground, she says, “becomes a good way to talk about the relationship between the art world and the rest of the world.”
The show begins with a list of 70 categories, some of which she has borrowed from the fair — “lamp, any size or style,” “wood, three dimensional construction,” and “almanac,” for example. Others, more poetic, she has invented: “his blue eyes,” “my heart wants more,” “anonymous Americans.” Though this system is looser than in the past, and admits of greater associative interpretation, it still plays the same practical role for Mack: “Often in the studio I think, ‘I don’t know what to do today.’ Well, now I have the list. I can pick one of the 70 things and get to work.”
Some of the works in Junk Kaleidoscope could easily pass muster at Durham, like a handsome straw-work wreath, inscribed CONNECTICUT, which Mack has mounted on a hand-built fireplace. (First-time visitors to the Aldrich may not realize that this feature has been added to the existing architecture, a good example of the way that the artist is subtly shifting the museum into a more suburban state of mind.) There is plenty of humblecore craft on view. Some artworks are mounted on pegboard, and some are embellished with glued macaroni or Honeynut Cheerios.
Also drawn from the sensibility of the fairground is a pervasive atmosphere of yearning. Nostalgia for a simpler America — an emotion that has had baleful implications for the body politic of late — is here treated with compassion and understanding. Indeed, Mack often seems to be channeling her own past, or that of American teenagers more generally. One of the most ambitious works in the show pays tribute to a 14-year-old girl whose dying wish was to be cryogenically frozen. A newspaper account of the story, written in a just-the-facts-ma’am style, alternates with a series of rings denoting attachment, memory, and loss. Another piece, entitled “Hello Girlfriend,” compresses an ass’s worth of denim into the format of a small painting; a hot fuchsia flower hangs from it on a string. It’s a funny and sympathetic visual poem about the humid intensity of adolescent desire.
Together with Amy Smith-Stewart, the curator of Junk Kaleidoscope, Mack plans to re-hang the show completely in January, midway through its run. This beta version of the exhibition will be planned collaboratively with a group of local residents, who will be given the opportunity to choose from other recent work by the artist, and to determine the new arrangement of the galleries. It is highly unusual to hand over such responsibility to non-professionals, but Mack isn’t worried. “What’s the worst that could happen? It’s all my work,” she says. And she is looking forward to the exchange, like that she experienced at the Durham Fair ten and twenty years ago. “I’m so interested to hear what they have to say. You never get to hear what anyone thinks about your art. No one ever says, ‘your show sucks, I can’t believe I came to your opening.’ Everyone just says it’s great.”
Relinquishing curatorial authority is partly a way to satisfy her own curiosity and test her democratic instincts against the reality of a public response. Yet it is also a way to open up this particular art situation. Contemporary art may have found its freedom, but it remains extremely hierarchical, and utterly disconnected from the majority of the population. For Mack, the transit from fairground exhibitor to art school and back again has been a profoundly meaningful one, and it is an experience she wants to share. “I want to know what regular people think,” she says. “Because I consider myself a regular person.” That shouldn’t sound like a radical statement. But it is.