RAM meets polymer at the crossroads
Polymer. I admit it. The word brings to mind visions of the scene in "The Graduate."
"I just want to say one word to you: plastics. There's a great future in plastics."
In the '60s however, polymer – and specifically sculptable polymer clay – didn't get that kind of respect. Developed in the 1930s as a medium for making dolls, polymer polyvinyl chloride, polymer became famous as Sculpey, a kind of modeling "clay" embraced by crafters.
The road to legitimacy for artists working in polymer has been an uphill one. But a major advance has come in the form of "Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads," an exhibition at Racine Art Museum, which runs through Feb. 5, 2012.
The show, which opened October, helps celebrate the museum's recent establishment of a permanent collection of polymer sculptures, decorative objects, beads and jewelry.
"It very much has a sort of a hobbyist component," says RAM curator of exhibitions Lena Vigna. "You can go to Michael's and buy it. It's a new material, basically. It was not a high art medium. It's almost like, 'It must not be worth much if it's so popular'."
"It sort of continues a conversation about contemporary crafts," adds Jessica Z. Schafer, the museum's marketing and publications manager. "Because in the '60s and in the '50s so many mediums that are (now accepted as) contemporary crafts were in that same exact conversation, because (people would say) 'you can't really make fine art with this because it's a popular medium'."
Vigna says: "Unlike polymer, clay has thousands of years of history and it still needs validation in certain circles. And this particular medium doesn't even have a history beyond the 20th century. It's gained a lot of significance within a really short period of time, due in no small part to the people who started playing around with polymer; people who came from a lot of different backgrounds, including in science and engineering."
Looking at the dozens of objects in the show, it's hard to imagine anyone could make a case that these varied and often astonishing works are not worthy of being called art.
Jeffrey Lloyd Dever's smooth seamless works based on shapes from nature are playful and colorful and the fact that the color he uses is in the polymer, not painted on it, makes the results seem even more impressive.
Elise Winters' creations look almost like fabric. Lindly Haunani's "Crayon Lei in Oranges and Greens," which incorporates wax crayons, appears good enough to eat. Then look closely at Cynthia Toops' mosaics and other works made from nearly microscopic bits of polymer and you'll be amazed.
The show also includes furniture pieces, polymer postcards and other objects.
Vigna says the show grew out of a relationship that developed between polymer artist Winters and RAM executive director and curator of collections Bruce W. Pepich.
"Before I got here," she recalls, "Bruce was in conversation with (Winters) who's been a polymer artist for about 20 years, who really wanted to bring polymer to its next level because there were so many people that she was out there curating or showing with who were making things that were, to be perfectly honest, beyond the hobbyists."
Because they were seen as outside the accepted art world, an organic community of polymer artists developed and Winters was a part of it.
"There's a community of polymer people who for years were using the internet to talk to one another because they were scattered around the country," says Vigna.
"There was almost a good loving thing going on. They wanted to share ideas. So what we're seeing with a lot of these people who have achieved a certain kind of success and a certain body of work, they're either part of this early conversation or growing out of it."
Winters was working to establish polymer and knew that she needed a respected institution to get involved. She realized, says Vigna, that a museum partner would help validate polymer as an accepted medium.
Winters visited museums and met with their staffs. She helped assemble a collection that included her works but also works from other artists and the Polymer Collection Project was born.
"RAM took the largest number of works from this collection that she had established," says Vigna. "This institution got almost 200 works from the polymer collection project. Elise Winters realized that RAM, thanks to Bruce's willingness not to be afraid of those things that kept polymer marginalized, and after visiting RAM, she really thought that this would be the place for polymer."
Many of those works are on display in the exhibition and can be seen in "Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads," a 130-page hardcover exhibition catalog published by the museum, which also held a symposium as part of the supporting programming surrounding the show.
Polymer really is a terra nova in the art world and the crossroads is right here in southeastern Wisconsin thanks to the visionaries at Racine Art Museum.
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