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November/December 2004

Anatomy of an Exhibition

A reporter pieces together the elements of a dramatic installation. John McQueen appears to be involved. . . .

by Susan kavicky

The room is dimly lit. Two shadowed figures are standing close together, in what seems deep conversation, conspiratorial. They look like inspectors. Flashbulbs pop and draw my gaze to the floor, where a body is sprawled. The wall is scribbled with graffiti-like images. There is even a box of chalk—the kind used to draw the outline of a figure on the floor.
Just then, the two “inspectors” separate. The tall one turns in my direction. As he approaches earnestly, I recognize him.

Bruce Pepich is striding toward me with an engaging smile and open arms. He introduces me to Davira S. Taragin. Where the floor meets the wall, lying on his side, is John McQueen, attaching “willow doodles” to a wall with string and stapler. In the adjacent section of the gallery, museum workers are testing the lighting: dimming, brightening, working for the desired effect. A year-and-a-half-long process is culminating this week with the installation of a site-specific work by McQueen at the Racine Art Museum (RAM) in Wisconsin.

Bruce Pepich is Executive Director and Curator of Collections at RAM, the new sibling of the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts. Since 1981, Pepich has nurtured the contemporary craft collection at the museums [featured in the January/February 2003 issue of Fiberarts]. Davira S. Taragin is RAM’s Director of Exhibitions.

John McQueen is a basket maker. He was born in Oakland, Illinois, in 1943. He graduated from the University of South Florida in 1971 with a B.A. and from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, in Philadelphia in 1975 with an M.F.A. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York. For Rob Pulleyn's book The Basketmaker's Art [Lark Books, 1992], John had this to say about his work: “The baskets I make are branches of trees rearranged and no longer real the way a tree is real.” He has worked with ash, grapevine, and paint; cedar bark, white-pine bark, day-lily stalks, willow bark—a list that goes on and on. Currently he is investigating willow, waxed string, and plastic ties.

View of John McQueen’s installation at RAM (detail), 2004; willow, waxed string,
bundle ties. Photo: Michael Tropea.

John McQueen tying willow to wall at RAM. Photo: Susan Kavicky.
From left to right: John McQueen, Jessica Zalewski, and Davira S. Taragin finalizing exhibition brochure. Photo: Susan Kavicky.

In October 2002, John was in Chicago for an exhibition and reception at Perimeter Gallery. At that time, he visited RAM, which was not yet open to the public. He toured the raw space and reviewed RAM's holdings of his work.

Also that month, RAM hired Davira for her position, whereupon she developed the idea for a series of exhibitions in which artists would respond to the museum collection. John McQueen was selected as the first to launch this program. “I'm selecting artists from an exclusive group, artists with a talent for ’the vision,’ artists with the capacity to think big,” Davira comments. “They need to imagine and conceptualize and, above all, be creative.”

John McQueen, Heart in Hand, 1992; ash, willow, locust, oak; 41" x 38" x 50".
Collection of the Racine Art Museum. Photo: Michael Tropea.
John McQueen, Warning Words, 1991; willow, waxed cotton string; 45 1/2" x 29" x 23". Collection of the Racine Art Museum. Photo: Michael Tropea.

The exhibition was scheduled for spring 2004. Half of the second-floor gallery space would present a selection of baskets from the RAM collection, curated by John; the other half would be his artistic response to the RAM space.

“I was scared to death," John says. “The space was completely empty, and it looked huge. Ö I thought, What am I gonna do with this big space? This is a football field!”

John McQueen, Shirt Tales, 2004; willow, waxed cotton string, bundle ties; 58" x 54" x 16". Photo: Arthur Evans.

By November 2003, the museum had successfully opened its doors and treated visitors to several inspiring exhibits. John was heading for Wisconsin to install an exhibit at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. On the way, he stopped at RAM for a visual update of the space and to select pieces for the exhibit from the RAM collection. He sat in the gallery space for a long time trying to decide if his preliminary ideas would work. “Something down the middle of the space . . . and something on the wall . . . contrast one piece against the other?” he mused.

“At the time, the Donna Moog Teapot Collection was on display," John remembers. “I liked the display shelves that had been hung high on the wall. I started to think, ’What kinds of things are up high? . . . Friezes.’ ” John was also challenged by the Marek Cecula exhibit, a series of patterned ceramic plates positioned on the floor. “How am I gonna top this?” he wondered. He laughs and adds, “Competition gets in there right away.”

When he returned home, the already frequent e-mails between Davira and John became daily e-mails. His sketchbook was beginning to fill.

John McQueen, Table of Contents (detail), 2004; willow, bundle ties, waxed string, painted wood, chalk; 45" x 573" x 45". Photo: Arthur Evans.

In December, John was finishing up work for a Perimeter Gallery exhibit in New York. After installing the work and attending the opening, he returned home to begin production of work in earnest for the RAM exhibit.

A typical workday begins with coffee. By the time John is fully awake, he has two hours of knotting accomplished in his studio, which is attached to his house. He walks through the sliding door and assembles breakfast. The middle of the day tends to be the time when John accomplishes his intellectual work: planning, sketching, drawing, making decisions regarding the work, solving structural dilemmas, and so forth. By late afternoon, fatigue dictates a return to knotting. It is typical for a workday to last twelve hours or more. Sometimes he spends the entire day knotting.

Since the work that John had planned for RAM exceeded the dimensions of his workspace, he designed and constructed a section at a time. He wouldn't know the finished look of the piece until it was installed in the gallery in late April.

April 2nd. It’s one month before the exhibit is to open. The installation will take two weeks, so only two weeks remain for John to finish the work.

He has meticulously planned the exhibition elements so they disassemble and fit in his van. He is too busy to be worried or frenzied. “It is just work, work, and more work,” he explains. His plan is not flexible. He has about seventy-five percent of the show constructed, and sleep is becoming a luxury.

April 17th. John packs his van: a box of tools, stacks of fabricated willow elements, a box of willow images, bundles of extra willow. . . .

April 18th. He drives all day; ties and knots willow in the hotel room at night.

April 19th. John arrives in Racine and checks into his hotel room, which overlooks the beautiful Lake Michigan harbor. RAM is a short walk up the street.

April 27th. It’s five days before the opening reception. Only two days remain until special programs have been scheduled for John and members of RAM's material support organization, the RAM Society. This is the day that I arrive on the scene as reporter. Though the pace around the place is not exactly frenzied, it is definitely determined. John has been stapling willow to wall, tying waxed-string knots, and pulling staples for days. Touch-ups to pedestals are carefully being made where surfaces have been marred. Davira is placing the exhibit pieces. They must be compatibly placed, at an engaging height, with appropriate display equipment (cases, pedestals, etc.). On this Tuesday, the pieces are screaming their discontent, and she is fine-tuning the arrangement. She is coordinating and overseeing and consulting on every detail of the show: the exhibition, documentation, RAM Society programs, opening reception, and much more. Of course, there are lots of people working together to make the exhibition a success. Don Peterson, art handler, has worked tirelessly with John. Michael Nitsch, exhibition preparator, has fingers that are gray and sore from tying waxed-string knots. I am invited, and gladly agree, to help with the tying.

Michael Nitsch tying waxed string knots. Photo: Susan Kavicky.

May 2nd. Drawing Out the Collection: John McQueen Responds to RAM opens to the public. The opening reception is more than everything everyone has anticipated. At the entrance to the gallery space, six of John's baskets from RAM's collection lock the attention of visitors immediately. Dated from 1977 to 1992, these forms provide a retrospective of John's work. Continuing through this part of the gallery, viewers delight in John's selection of pieces by master basket makers. RAM's significant collection is owed almost completely to the generosity of Karen Johnson Boyd, who established the collection in 1991 with an inaugural gift of more than thirty works. Makers represented in the exhibition include such masters as Ed Rossbach, Katherine Westphal, Dorothy Gill Barnes, Carol Eckert, and Jiro Yonezawa.

Turning the corner into the second half of the gallery space, viewers are shocked. A scaffold structure spans the length of the room. Table of Contents is a forty-eight-foot-long structure of willow, plastic ties, and waxed string set upon twelve orange-painted museum shipping crates. One hundred seventy-two willow images are placed at intervals around the entire top of the structure. Continental Drift is an eight-foot-tall, thirty-six-foot-long wall of willow and waxed-string constructions. A wall opposite exhibits four folding screens. The exhibit also includes ten working drawings in pencil.

That box of chalk? There are no outlines of corpses on the museum floor. John surprised those who helped install the exhibition by writing their names with chalk on the orange museum crates. Then he added notes of his own: “fragile,” “keep together,” “return to Racine Art,” “do not sit here,” “ask for someone in charge.”

Dial A for Astonishing. John completely outdid himself for this exhibit.

Susan kavicky is a full-time basket maker who writes occasionally and reads too many mystery novels.

John McQueen, Continental Drift (detail), 2004; willow, waxed string; 96" x 432" x 3/8". Photo: Arthur Evans.

This article first appeared
online in:

Nov/Dec 2004


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