Doodads, Whatchamacallits, and Thingamajigs
By Tom Wachunas
“You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” - comedian Steven Wright –
“History is representational, while time is abstract; both of these artifices may be found in museums, where they span everybody’s own vacancy.” - Robert Smithson –
EXHIBITION: The Odditorium at the Massillon Museum, on view THROUGH AUGUST 26, 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon, (330) 833 – 4061 www.massillonmuseum.org
I’m reminded by this exhibit that in all the years I’ve been writing about art shows at this venue (and long before this blog came into being), I’ve tended to forget that the words “of Art” do not follow “Massillon Museum,” as is the case, for example, with The Canton Museum of Art. I’m also reminded that museums are essentially missional institutions, i.e., cultural entities with a particular purpose or intentional focus. The mission statement for the Massillon Museum reads, “The Massillon Museum collects, preserves and exhibits art and artifacts to enrich our community through education and experience.” I’ve noticed various promotional materials for the Museum with this addendum: Where Art and History Come Together!
“…preserves and exhibits art and artifacts…” What a word, artifact. In some contexts I’ve often regarded it as somewhat problematic when presented as separate from art per se. It seems to imply the plethora of stuff we wouldn’t fully embrace as outright art, or fine art, or high art, but somehow still related – arty facts, but not necessarily art as a matter of fact. I suppose that way we can comfortably praise or savor the “craft” of a thing, or its historical/ educational relevance, without feeling compelled to call it real art. Of course such musings may seem needlessly elitist, nitpicky and otherwise opening up a phenomenological can of worms – an ideological maelstrom of definitions and categories. But as this exhibit makes clear enough, some cans of worms, as it were, are more grandly constructed and attractive than others.
For this show, the Museum has plumbed the depths of its surprisingly voluminous permanent collection. Who knew that lurking behind the utterly ordinary façade of this building in downtown Massillon were store rooms brimming with some 100,000…things, many rarely exhibited, amassed over a 79-year collecting history, mostly as gifts from the community? The “brainchild” of Canton Repository arts and entertainment editor, Dan Kane, in collaboration with Museum staff and other partners including Craig Joseph (Translations Art Gallery) and Kevin Anderson (Anderson Creative), the exhibit presents an overwhelmingly eclectic and eccentric array of objects ranging from the truly fascinating (historically and aesthetically) and rare to the just plain kitschy, organized into a series of themed rooms in the house of the fictional Wunderkammer family, named for the German noun meaning “chamber of wonders.”
Wonders? Some. You need to sort through a considerable quantity of unremarkable bric-a-brac. The show exudes all the theatrical spirit of carnival sideshows – some of it endearing, nostalgic, even beautiful, and some unapologetically bizarre. Entertaining? No argument there. For example (pictured above), there’s a framed Hair Wreath from 1885, meticulously woven out of hair salvaged from Josephine Derr’s brush. Evidently some Victorian ladies had entirely too much time on their hands. And there’s Richard A. George’s jarring, untitled 1973 painting (also pictured above) of a naked lady ascending a train engine. A kinky rendezvous with the engineer, or a Realist’s answer to Duchamp’s Cubist Nude Descending a Staircase? Curiouser and curiouser, these are just a paltry few of my favorite things here.
I couldn’t help thinking that some museums’ permanent collections might be examples of a culturally acceptable OCD – a kind of pathological drive to hoard all kinds of disparate stuff. Or might it be an equally pathological fear of turning down gifts from well-meaning benefactors? I mean this all in good fun…I think. In any event, should the Massillon Museum decide to ever seriously clean house, it could be the occasion of a monumentally historic eBay feeding frenzy.