John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI
March 22 through August 31, 2014
For forty years, the Kohler Company in Kohler, Wisconsin has hosted a residency for artists. If you are not familiar with Kohler, just step into your bathroom or kitchen and take a peek. Kohler is best known as one of the country’s oldest manufacturers of sinks, toilets, bathtubs, and urinals. Despite the rather practical application of their products, the Kohler Company is dedicated to the marriage of art and industry. In commemoration of this historic four decade marker, the Kohler Arts Center in the town of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, has curated a retrospective of a diverse group of artists called Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation. Many of the works on display are taken directly from Kohler’s own extensive collection.
Since this is a retrospective, there isn’t much that unifies the individual artworks as a whole, with the single exception of materials. The artists in residence work with the craftspeople at Kohler to utilize the available materials and manufacturing methods in the factory. This means nearly all of the work is vitreous china, cast iron, or bronze. This had an interesting effect on me as a viewer by drawing my attention to material in a way I usually ignore in a traditional gallery setting. It’s hard not to make comparisons between works when they all start with the same source material. Of the dozens of artists, I thought I might call your attention to two.
“Funeral Wreath” (2001), by Sarah Peters is slipcast, hand built, glazed vitreous china. At the size of an actual floral funerary, this sculpture conveys lightness and life. In fact, I was surprised when I read the title. There are no artists statements or wall tags, so I cannot know what Peters intended. Still, as I stood there marveling at the delicacy of the work, I couldn’t help but notice how often funeral flowers and wedding flowers look the same.
“Babel” (2008), by Jim Neel is a startling collection of slipcast chimpanzee soldiers, 50 of them. Some have no legs, some no arms, each soldier is unique. The complete work itself, dominates the room. “Babel” reminded me of the Chinese Terracotta Army that I saw in Seattle when I was little. Those soldiers impressed me then, and it was an interesting experience seeing Neel’s work in person. 50 sculptures is difficult. It’s too many to engage with individually, yet the grouping is still small enough to view from a fixed position.
Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation is an interesting exhibition because it highlights how individual artists from different periods, approach the same materials while working in the same environment. The Kohler residency offers once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for artists to have access to the kind of industrial manufacturing that is closed to most artists. (You can read about and apply for the residency here.) This is a worthwhile exhibition. Certainly, if you find yourself in Wisconsin, you should stop by. There is another gallery space with a concurrent exhibition. Oh, and while you’re there, don’t forget to check out the bathrooms…all of them.