A fictional artist and The Monster at the End of This Book!

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This is the second in a series of posts about my experience as a student in the MoMA-led MOOC “Art and Inquiry.” Looking forward to hearing your thoughts! If you are also a student in the course, I encourage you to respond via the Coursera forum.

Practice Developing Open-Ended Questions

After a review of different kinds of questions and their role in inquiry-based learning, we were encouraged to try the technique for ourselves. Here are the instructions we received (I encourage you to try it out, even if you aren’t taking the course!).

Browse through MoMA’s online Collection and choose an image. Research some information about the work of art using MoMA.org and/or other online sources. Respond to these questions:

* What drew you to this work of art?
* What information were you able to find out about this work?
* If you were to teach with this work, what aspects would you like to introduce to your students?

My selection: The Bricks by Reena Spaulings (2006)


Reena SpaulingsThe Bricks, 2006
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Museum of Modern Art

What drew you to this work of art?

The work first caught my eye because it reminded me of the Little Golden Book, The Monster at the End of This Book, in which Grover (of Sesame Street) puts up all kinds of barriers (including a brick wall) in an attempt to warn the reader about a ferocious creature she will encounter if she continues to turn the page.

**Spoiler Alert**
If hate to spoil the plot for those of you who haven’t read it but the monster at the end of the book turns out to be Grover himself. He is very embarrassed to have caused such a fuss.
/**Spoiler Alert**

This canvas (and the book) depicts items that we think of as heavy and made to withstand the elements. Brick walls are impenetrable, stubborn, heavy obstacles; conversing with someone who is “like speaking to a brick wall” is a frustrating, cold experience. We say that difficult, emotional things hit us “like a ton of bricks.” In the 21st century, we discuss the binaries of “bricks and mortar” versus the virtual; sometimes the institution is seen as solid and timeless, other times the phrase is used to refer to an outmoded way of being in an increasingly digital world.

Both the book and this work of art are also playful with this heavy subject matter. It is easy enough to turn a page in a book, despite a depiction of onerous bricks. Similarly, the draping of the canvas makes the bricks appear lightweight, flimsy, and most certainly faux.

In addition to the visual appeal and sense of familiarity of the work itself, I was also drawn to the female name of the artist (I have a background in feminist theory). A quick glance at the MoMA description for the object intrigued me even more… “Reena Spaulings is a fictional artist and art dealer and literary persona. Under her name, several artists conceived and executed this painting, which features a crudely rendered brick–and–mortar pattern.” I was hooked and wanted to learn more!

What information were you able to find out about this work?

The work is housed in the Paintings and Sculpture department but is classified by MoMA as a painting, though it does not strike the viewer as as a typical painting. The brick pattern is painted on both sides of on an unstretched canvas and the work is displayed three dimensionally. It is versatile and “can be displayed in a number of ways: folded, open, lying on the floor, draped over objects, hung as backdrop, or in a combination of these options, as seen here.” The canvas itself is forty by eight feet, a massive size which doesn’t translate well through the small thumbnail images found on the Web.

I was not surprised to learn that the brick pattern was inspired by the Lower East Side of New York, as brick always reminds me first and foremost of a East Coast urban areas. Manhattan is the location of the Reena Spaulings gallery.

2005 New York Times review refers to the work as part of a “suite of handmade flags, each the same size, each of different design, none exactly commanding a salute.”  This is the only reference I found that referred to the work as a flag, a concept which adds an interesting dimension to the work and how it is displayed. I would love to find a photo of the series together to get a better sense of its original display context.

The headline of a New York Magazine review, “Who Are These People?” sums up the bewildered response I have to the idea of a fictional artist who is actually made up of a rotating array of artists, including Emily Sundblad (founder and director of the eponymous gallery). The NYMag piece explores this strange identity a bit but also calls the group to task for using the fake identity construct to avoid accountability and also get good press by, well, writing about it themselves (co-director John Kelsey writes for Artforum). The author goes so far as to call them “art pranksters.”

In a less-than-glowing 2006 review for Untitled magazine, critic Cameron Irving describes the work: “The self-consciously painted brickwork only achieves a bare semblance of recognition, as if to ape the aesthetics of a ‘community project’ and sneer at the orthodox political correctness of collaboration.” He describes the experience of the show of “ironic painting” as “irksome” and cites his concern about “the ease at which work of questionable quality can slip through panoptic structures engineered by collaborative art groups.”

Art student Philippa Ho has a less negative take on the work, as evidenced in the evocative interpretive notes she lists on her blog:

If you were to teach with this work, what aspects would you like to introduce to your students?

In my case, I am taking this course to think more about how I might use objects to generate conversation between a museum and its audiences via social media. So my “students” in this case are informal learners or simply fans of museums interested in viewing and discussing art casually. The inquiry-based method of learning seems to very much rely on a series of questions that hang well together. I am skeptical that any of the questions I pose below would work well on its own, as can easily happen when a social media post is taken out of context.

At any rate, I think there is a lot of richness to cover about the formal elements of the work, the symbolism and physicality of brick walls, and the history behind the makers of the works.

I might ask:

* What is interesting to you about the material used to make this work?

* How would you describe the role or function of brick walls in everyday life?

* How is this depiction of a brick wall the same or different from brick walls in everyday life?

* How does it feel to see a brick wall that is limp and hanging?

* Is this how you would choose to display the work?

* Are there any clues about who made the work of art?

* Why might the people who made this work have chosen to work together and under a false name?

What questions does this work raise for you? How might you lead a guided inquiry of this work, either in a gallery or online?

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