hroughout the course of the Contemporary Art Center’s storied 75-year existence, a consistent thread has been the museum administration’s willingness to take risks, whether it be the initial founding of the center during a time when this town was as unwelcoming to avant-garde artists like Picasso and Matisse as New York had been to them some 25 years earlier, the infamous Mapplethorpe exhibition in 1990 or, even more recently, inviting an artist with no prior experience (Michael Stillion) to curate an exhibition.
In yet another strategic move, CAC administrators are gambling on fiber artist, Cincinnati Bombshells founder, arts educator and performer Pam Kravetz to craft a “Memory Quilt” in honor of the museum’s anniversary.
But what might seem like an odd choice of artist for a center for contemporary art is actually quite apt for an organization currently investigating its own institutional history. Quilting is, after all, one of the older forms of visual language that literally pieces together a narrative past. And Kravetz — like many other artists who’ve shown at the CAC — has a long history with the museum.
She began working as a docent at the CAC in the early 1980s when it was still located on the second floor of the Mercantile Center on Fifth Street.
“The parties back then were crazy,” Kravetz says of the time she spent giving art tours while working toward her degree in Fine Arts at the University of Cincinnati as a single mom.
“There were scandalous things going on there,” she says with a grin. “It was the place that that [kind of thing] was OK because that’s what we want: to bring the new and avant-garde!”
Kravetz had her own first major art installation at the CAC’s UnMuseum in 2008, and in 2011 she led a group of no less than 15 Bombshells to create a yarn bombing installation on the façade of the CAC for its gala. And the artist got a chance to talk to a lot of people about their own (scandalous or otherwise) memories of the CAC for a video/performance piece, which actually kick-started her current Memory Quilt project.
Dressed to the nines with “big hair, too much makeup and too many pearls,” Kravetz was enlisted by the CAC to act as a camp news reporter for the institution’s annual gala this past year.
Kravetz interviewed Cincinnati icons like Alice Weston and the son of Albert Vontz Jr., who donated Nam June Paik’s Metrobot to the CAC in the mid-’80s. Recorded and edited down, many of those memories will be shown on the Metrobot as part of the CAC’s larger umbrella anniversary show, Memory Palace.
According to CAC Curator Steven Matijcio, Memory Palace “will celebrate the subjective texture of storytelling,” so an interdisciplinary approach to connecting the human performance of history only makes sense. Performance, as Matijcio puts it, is less about archival accuracy and more about adaptation and interpretation.
Working in large, collaborative groups — something Kravetz does often as leader and founder of the Cincinnati Bombshells — not only seems appropriate for any contemporary living artist, but it also makes sense on a metaphorical level for an institution that wants to weave together the stories of its stakeholders. Thanks to funding from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, the quilt is participatory as well — anyone can pick up a quilt square kit and add their memory to the collection.
Kravetz’s visual language embraces a kind of stream of consciousness. When she was initially learning about quilting from narrative quilter Susan Shie, Kravetz was concerned that her aesthetic wasn’t polished enough. But Shie showed her the beauty of imperfections.
“Susie taught me this way of making art that wasn’t about the perfect stitch; it wasn’t about things lining up just right,” Kravetz says. “It was about the story being told.”
Being true to the story, then — however subjective that narrative thread might be — is of primary importance.
What came as a result of her “news reporting” at the annual gala turned out to be the impetus for CACtv: an interactive game show/variety show and art history-based performance piece that Kravetz has hosted twice now — the culmination for which will be the opening of Memory Quilt and the final CACtv performance on Nov. 3.
As part of CACtv, Kravetz interviewed (via her puppet, “Jinglebell Yosemite,” which she made during a month-long traditional Czech puppet making workshop in Prague) Vincent van Gogh about his missing ear, put Frida Kahlo on a life-size “Wheel of Death,” and listened to a dramatically expounding Salvador Dali.
Part absurdist performance, part art historical quiz show, CACtv is, according to Kravetz, “the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen.”
The Wheel of Death spins to select pre-determined questions, and Kravetz interacts with the crowd both inside and outside the center’s large, glass-framed foyer. She tells a story about a family who’d noticed the visual spectacle from outside, and the artist roped them into coming inside to participate.
“I just said, ‘Hey you! Come in!’ and they did,” she says almost in disbelief. Mentioning that they clearly weren’t in the area to visit the CAC, Kravetz says they didn’t seem disappointed in their experience. “They sat in the first row because they were like, ‘This is ridiculous; it’s clearly not art,’ ” she says with a giggle.
And perhaps therein lies the crux of what the CAC does so successfully: the institution reminds us that the definition of what constitutes contemporary art is a moving target.
One of the juicier archived items for inclusion in Memory Quilt, unearthed by the CAC’s Research and Program assistant Chris Perbix, demonstrates how art that is truly avant-garde is so often misunderstood at first, only to be embraced as groundbreaking to future inheritors. The 1940 angry letter from a CAC stakeholder protested an exhibition of “idiocity [sic] stuff” by the “so called artist,” Picasso.
Clearly, the CAC has a successful track record of standing on the right side of history. With Kravetz on their team, the center will have more community supporters who also share their view. ©