CHELSEA CULPRIT & JOAN SHANNAHAN
THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS
Costume jewelry has a long history, dating back nearly 300 years, but the history of costume as it is today has its origins in the manufacture of low cost jewelry during the 1920’s. It is considered by most historians to have come into its own during the middle of the 20th Century. This history spans from the 1920’s through the 1970’s, with its “golden age” being the 1940’s and 1950’s.
In the United States and Europe there was a demand from the emerging middle class for increasingly luxurious goods at increasingly lower prices. With this came the market for what is now called costume, or fashion jewelry.
The emergent “street style” that these pieces catered to in the 1920’s and 30’s was typified by sartorial experimentation through an excessive layering of necklaces, stacking of bracelets, and donning of multiple brooches, etc. These styles are interwoven with depictions of jewelry during Hollywood’s Golden Age that showcased large, elaborate pieces in film.
The use of inexpensive materials alleviated designers from the necessity of maintaining a clientele inclined to spend large sums on rare stones and metals to produce each piece. Without these constraints, designers were able to, at lower cost, experiment with less traditional constructions, eventually leading to increased production of figural jewelry.
Costume jewelry has, in a sense, cast off the material histories associated with jewelry—of mining camps, of geological pressure, bourgeoisie market forces, &c.—in favor of the image. Within the context of photographic representation, there is an irreconcilable distance between the beholder and the object which precludes any possibility of scientific inspection from attempting an account of its mineral composition. A photograph of a diamond appears to be the same as one of a rhinestone. Any closer look is halted by the surface of the print or the projection screen—an image for eyes alone to behold.
In addition to contributing to the economic aspirations of the middle class towards the bourgeoisie, the inexpensive cost of costume jewelry can be said to not only to catalyze sartorial experimentation but experimentation of presentation and negotiation of identity and its expression. Evidenced in the terminological distinction between “jewelry” and “costume jewelry,” which does not refer solely to rarity of materials and their monetary value but of an intention and capability for its constellation with other elements as part of an “outfit.” Whereas jewelry made from rare and expensive materials is intended to elicit a desire attached to the object, costume jewelry (even as great skill is often employed in its production) refocuses on the wearer’s body as the support for variable presentation. The move towards common materials can be interpreted as liberatory, wherein bonds to the marketplace are diversified ad infinitum (anything may become jewelry), if not dissolved completely. The nimbleness of economics and materials provides a fertile ground for continued renegotiation.
As trends for specific costume jewelry designs shifted and less desirable pieces were realized, a glut of material came to both the secondary and primary markets, resulting in increasingly lower prices. One of the reactions to this situation comes from vernacular artists who began collecting large quantities of costume jewelry, deconstructing them and ritualistically reconfiguring the gems into their own artworks. In many cases, the artists bejeweled larger household objects including mirrors, nightstands, chests of drawers, vanities, &c. Here the negotiations, while historically constellated around identity, are not only attached to the body in the sense that there must be a wearer, but expand to attach themselves quite literally to the “settings” of daily life.
This identification of costume gems as raw material by these artists reverses the process of commodification with which rare stones are intertwined. Artists instead “mine” the material excess of capitalism—an area of culture without rarity—to assemble their artworks. Their handling of materials is without a doubt skillful, yet it is at once deskilled in terms of setting stones the way a jeweler does, as the settings which carry the plastic and glass gems are not subject to the same requirements as their precious counterparts. In practice, this shift in handling constitutes an acknowledgment of difference in the material realities and directly influences how the image is constructed.
The primary intent when setting a precious stone is to allow enough light to pass through it, to grant visual access to the beauty of its interior composition. The treatment by artists working with costume gems is more directly related to collage, or even painting practices. Without the presence of a rarified interior, the gems themselves become the smallest unit of an image, and it is by their constellation that the image is formulated.
An emergent tradition in vernacular artmaking during the 1960’s is the depiction of Christmas trees by mounting costume jewelry pieces to upholstered panel. The costume jewels beset in the image of the Christmas tree have a similar pictorial function as traditional glass ornaments, garlands, string lights, flocking, that ensconce a living room tree. This is, to a degree, to replicate the effects of a fresh snow, glittering with a fine surface of ice in the winter landscape. The encrusting of a living room tree is an additive process emulating the accumulation of snow on a tree’s branches. The frontal images of Christmas trees produced from an excess of costume jewelry contain a significant difference in the way the image materializes. Namely, it does not rely on the support of the Christmas tree as its bounding edges, but instead it opts for a more vague, recognizable shape, one that is adhered to a rectilinear, upholstered ground of buckram, satin or velvet. It is not encrusted but is itself the crust without a bodily armature to attach to. The wearers themselves disappear, leaving behind a series of fictions and culturally ascribed visual languages.
Chelsea Culprit’s and Joan Shannahan’s installation Thank Your Lucky Stars is formulated in part as a tribute in memoriam to Margaret Frances Donnellly Shannahan and her daughter-in-law Mary Frances “Honey” Luebker Shannahan. Margaret Frances, who ran a boarding house in Connecticut, maintained a substantial and dynamic collection of costume jewelry. By the artists’ accounts, she wore it regularly, conveying a sense of graceful formality, means, and solacement to her guests amidst the austerity measures of the World War II era. Her jewelry became an outward expression of agency—life interweaving her own adornment, profession and personage.
During the 1970’s, upon her passing, Margaret Frances Donnellly Shannahan’s jewelry was reconfigured by her daughter-in-law, Mary Frances “Honey” Luebker Shannahan, to produce a series of monochromatic, framed Christmas trees for each of her six children as part of the vernacular tradition described above. The composition of the image of a Christmas tree in the sextet of works produced by Honey Shannahan was in part a ritual process providing for the gifts to be given, similar to her mother-in-law’s professional life which manifested a stage on which to project her own image by way of adornment.
Through the reflection on family history, Thank Your Lucky Stars is the site of multiple disappearances. The residue from each of the disappearances informs the piece--it is the conceptual material from which the work is produced, which is composed of those parts. The first is that of the wearer in general, with their bodies become the support for the image of excess; the second, Margaret Frances Shannahan whose life is memorialized and embodied, instructed by the image of the Christmas tree (the works which in turn disappeared through happenstance, leaving behind only their photographs); and finally the image of the Christmas tree has been conceptually reconfigured as an abstract form, encrusting the gallery’s walls.
The full-field composition of the work produced by Culprit and Shannahan for Oleksandr’sssssss proposes a flexible treatment of the image and its parts. It is without depiction. They instead opt for total encrustation of the exhibition space—the image is everywhere and is the space itself. This same strategy is evident in Culptrit’s canvases, wherein its identifiable parts—each with varied degrees of abstraction—are constellated into a swirling whole. Culprit’s “unsetting” and reconfiguring of fabric patches, body parts, shoes and painterly forms, are put on the same footing visually. Each identifiable piece the smallest possible unit for signification.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ORDER OF APPEARANCE
I. Christmas Tree produced by 'Honey' Mary Shannahan from the costume jewelry of Margaret Shannahan, circa 1970's.
Chelsea Culprit and Joan Shannahan
Chelsea Culprit and Joan Shannahan
Chelsea Culprit and Joan Shannahan
Curated by Elaine Levy
"Untitled (Sleeping Girl)" was a lump of clay squeezed in my hand, so it fits exactly in my hand and could be carried like a talisman. Though it’s titled "Untitled (Sleeping Girl)” I don’t think of it so much as either a boy or a girl, the face has the special rosy cheeks of a sleeping child.
Los Angeles-based artist Amy Bessone draws inspiration from sporadic, nodal networks of images. Her examination of portrayals of the female form is equally responsive to art historical examples--Greco-Roman sculptures, the ur sculpture from Willendorf, to the odalisques of high modernism--as it is to so-called lowbrow depictions--obscene figurines, collectibles, etc. Subverting notions of female figuration, her work meditates on the dichotomies of form and gender, class, stasis and movement. Bessone approaches the fundamentals of sculpture, in terms of material, methods and technique head on. The works exhibited, according to the artist, have in common a certain tenderness, vulnerability and innocence. The directness of her approach to material, technique and methods is congruent with recent art history, yet its simplicity does not mask any nostalgic sentimentality towards the classical arts. It stems from an impulse to remain in close bodily contact with her materials, expressing a personal longing to give shape to an idea or a sensual experience. Any sentimentality read to be present in her work is addressed directly.
The fact that I make these objects by hand, with their material being in the world and that they take up space is important. We try to tame things by categorizing them or dividing them. It’s a means of control. A sensual, physical, emotional, spiritual component is not divorced from the intellectual, academic, or rational. Scale and proximity are relative and therefore about relationships, such as the inescapable relationship of the viewer’s body to the art object .
The works on display are in direct conversation with her series Micro-monuments. Bessone links her proposal that a monument does not necessarily need to retain its large scale to become monumental, to tabletop architectural models. The visualization of architecture by way of the tabletop model is less about the specific structural plan to render the buildings inhabitable, and more about the apprehending the total sense of its design. The models are sets for staging a sort of pre-judgement on the eventual building itself, the human scale version of which, at the point of production, is a fantasy.
Small Flesh, the work most at home in the context of art history through the trope of the reclining nude, depicts a seated figure--an adolescent girl--performing the role of the heroine. The piece follows Bessone’s 2013 silkscreen on paper titled Heroine. The figure rests on a found block of wood it takes as its elevation. Small Flesh, and Heroine are derived in part from a souvenir figurine of a mermaid found in a thrift shop.
Gaston Bachelard writes in his 1958 book, The Poetics of Space, “Psychologists -and more especially philosophers- pay little attention to the play of miniature frequently introduced into fairy tales. In the eyes of the psychologist, the writer is merely amusing himself when he creates houses that can be set on a pea. But this is a basic absurdity that places the tale on a level with the merest fantasy. And a fantasy precludes the writer from entering, really, into the domain of the fantastic” .
The comparison of Untitled (Sleeping Girl) to a talisman conveys a different sort of meaning onto the scale of Bessone’s works. If the autonomy of Minimalist works is derived from masculinely conceived bodily dimensions, allowing them to inhabit a space with the viewer (like the traditional bronze monument dethroned), then Bessone’s works establish a symbiosis, steeped in need and desire, between the work and the viewer. Her palm sized monuments traffic in trust, belief and stewardship. Through their delicacy and scale the viewer is prompted to take on the role of preservationist--if only for a brief moment--with all relevant emotional impulses. Verses which endow the essential talismanic qualities to the object carried in one's pocket are seemingly supplanted in contemporary life by the plurality of reference points from which a work may be entered. Resonant with Bessone’s work, in 1908, Sarah Stein remarks in her note on Henri Matisse: “In addition to the sensations one derives from a drawing, a sculpture must invite us to handle it as an object; just so the sculptor must feel, in making it, the particular demands for volume and mass. The smaller the bit of sculpture, the more the essentials of form must exist”  .
Adding to the myriad of references in Bessone’s work, Playlet clearly winks to two of her favorites in art history--Magritte and de Chirico--for both their placement of objects in space and their play of scale. Giorgio de Chirico’s classicism was heavily marked by its theatricality. His paintings were conceived like small simplified theater decors to which he added some accessories. Objects progressively appeared in his paintings, the main one, from 1910 on, being the statue. As in Bessone’s work, that kind of theatricality was fed by art history throughout the years, and is accompanied by a certain melancholy, maybe rooted in the cast shadows, and the impression of silence.
In Bessone’s show the dimensional tension operates also between the two small sculptures placed at the same level, at the same scale, the body and the head, the part and the whole.
 Misplaced Empathy: Amy Bessone Interviewed by William J. Simmons, Recontextualizing “bad objects.”, April 8, 2019
Untitled (Sleeping Girl), 2019
Small Flesh, 2018
Intermission I: LXVIII
Organized by O.O.O.Q.
Curated by Elaine Levy
In his 1954 manifesto, "From Line to Constellation," Swiss poet, Eugen Gomringer reminds the reader that texts serve not only as written communication, but as images. He describes how poetry as an image imprints itself onto the reader’s mind.
If printing a prose is as curating a painting in a frame, then printing a poetry is like siting a sculpture in a landscape. Nicola Fucigna writes that "architecture and poetry share a paradoxical sense of "room." A poem has both space and boundary: room within a room. Similarly, a building achieves a perception beyond its limits." Fucigna formulates her understanding of poetry beginning with the method of loci—Latin for “places”—citing the myth of Simonides of Ceos wherein a banquet hall, destroyed by the gods, is reconstructed by memory from verse. She constellates the Greek myth with etymological interpretations. In Chinese character for “poem” (?) as “word” (?)+ “temple” (?), and in Italian: the dual meaning of “stanza” as both a group of lines in a poem and a room.
In the early and mid-1960s, Aram Saroyan became known for his increasingly short poems. He published a single word poem—”lighght”—in 1965, and later in the same year a four-legged version of the letter “m.” Richard Hell wrote in 2008, “Saroyan was writing poems meant to be looked at as much as read. His poems aimed to be things as well as words, and they used all the resources of the alphanumeric page (or slab of stone, as Ian Hamilton Finlay did, or poster or other medium) rather than being merely linguistic expression of pre-existing ideas or perceptions.”  By scaling poetry to its smallest possible elements coupled with its affinity to architecture—the final flying buttress of the m’s fourth leg—, Saroyan produces brief and intimate linguistic situations.Saroyan’s performance of his poetry brings to mind works by his contemporaries: John Giorno’s Dial-A-Poem (1968)*, or James Lee Byars’ World Question Center (1969), each which compounds the intimacy of speech within the technological apparatus that carries it. This intimacy with personal technology does not go unacknowledged by Saroyan. Instead of leveraging the apparatus directly, he works backwards from objects themselves—crickets and clocks. As, Paul Stephens writes, in his extensive MIT Press Reader review, Saroyan’s "not a cricket," plays with a sonic and semantic paralipsis:
Saroyan’s dication of the poem is slow, as if it were announced over the radio, and "ticks a / clock" shares a phonemic likeness to "six o’clock," while “ticks a” and “cricket” come together as an imperfect rhyme. 
By the end of the 20th century the sound of crickets came to represent quietude in literature, theatre and film. "Crickets" has since become a shorthand for complete silence—the occupants of an empty space.
 Gomringer, E. (2001). From Line to Constellation. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.ubu.com/papers/gomringer01.html
 Fucigna, N. (2017). Poetry an Architecture. Retrieved 2020, from http://constructionlitmag.com/featured-posts/poetry-and-architecture/
 Hell, R. (2008, April 27). Lighght Verse. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/27/books/review/Hell-t.html
 Stephens, P. (2020, September 08). Aram Saroyan and the Art of the One-Word Poem. Retrieved 2020, from https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/art-of-one-word-poem/
Works on display:
Aram Saroyan, “not a / cricket / ticks a / clock” in Pages, (New York: Random House, 1969), 19
Aram Saroyan, “the noises of the garden among the noises of the room” in Pages, (New York: Random House, 1969), 24Aram Saroyan, “crickets” after the poem written in 1965, recorded on October 30, 2020, for Oleksandrsssssss
Intermission 0: The Department of Apples
Organized In House
A Museum of Apples & Apple Trees