The inaccessibility of art is a lingering condition. For a first time viewer, a Rothko could frustrate, feeding the whole, “My kid can do that,” reaction. But what happens when the painting is put in the hands of the viewer, quite literally? What happens when the observer becomes a participant rather than a passive viewer? What happens to art when it is sensorially accessible beyond just sight? If you can touch it, maybe it is more real? If you can touch it, maybe you can appreciate the artist’s intentions? If you can touch it, perhaps art is more accessible?
Please Touch, juried by Cynthia Connolly, addresses these (and other) questions. Those questions can be asked in the Target Gallery, a contemporary exhibition space operated by the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Please Touch exhibits nationally recognized artists in the heart of touristic Old-Town Alexandria and this angle is worth mentioning. At any given day at the Torpedo Factory Art Center, you can interact with people from out of town as Old Town is a well-traveled destination. Accessibility is something that could drive tourism. So having an accessible show for contingent, out-of-town audiences sounds quite functional and the very premise of the show could be problematic. Maybe the concept exists because of selfie-sticks. Perhaps the concept exists because institutions need visitors. But, the work is quite smart so maybe the premise isn’t purely driven by ephemeral participants. Again, the word choice is important—participants; Please Touch is about participation.
When facing the Target Gallery there are two entrances, one on the left and one on the right. If the visitor enters through the right, s/he is greeted by Charles Rosecrans’ piece, Now You Did It, immediately causing the viewer to stumble through her/his own values about art. You pull the handle and it breaks away. Before even seeing the show, the viewer damages a work of art! But, the wall text lets the viewer down easily. It is all part of it. The viewer is a participant and gets to feel the moment of horror like a bull in a china shop (the selfie-stick shuffle and the art smash tumble!)
If the visitor enters the left side entrance, they encounter a hook with plates made by Jennifer Hansen Gard titled Project Share. The viewer is invited to take the plates and have lunch on them. Use the art for food, use the art like it is a bridge, or a road, or a plate—use the art for efficient reasons. This time, the component of participation appears to use the vocabulary of breaking bread. The participant is invited to take the plates and share them with someone then post to the blog jenihansengard.weebly.com/project-share, extending the social nature of breaking bread to the digital space of the Internet.
And the concept of participation and efficiency plays out again with tissue boxes by Kurt Treeby. Treeby makes yarn woven tissues boxes, just like mom used to make, but with titles like Disposable: Best Products Notch Showroom. But a viewer wouldn’t necessarily need to dry her/his tears on these architecturally inspired tissue boxes (though they can take the tissues). There is sophistication in the efficiency here, the plastic grid of the tissue box is reminiscent of the grid of the Gettysburg Cyclorama Center, the Best Notch Building, and Whitney Museum. The viewer gains a sort of kinesthetic empathy, empathy with the mechanics of weaving, an empathy with the hand of the artist and through that empathy a degree of availability occurs. The tissue is soft, touch it and see.
Several works were activated by touch. Magda Gluszek’s, The Conversation dress-up doll figures project out of the wall. Sherman Finch’s Etude 4 requires turning of a wheel to operate a mechanical device. Young Suk Lee’s Vitality (Turtle) shuddered ecstatically and hummed when stroked. The vital turtle is a sort of prickly, fuzzy opposition.
Please Touch is accessible. It is engaging. Touch is knowable—in our cribs our grasping little hands learn and flex. Touch is sensual, abrasive, sweet, and the source of our early understanding of hot and cold. Touching the hot pot stings and lingers in our memories. To touch art is likewise sensually sweet and sensuously icky. Lick the licked glass of Fumi Amano’s Look at Me and share tongue space with the multitude. Participants are invited to lick the two-sided frosted glass, revealing each contributor with each pass of their flappy talking organ. Here the glass interdicts the metaphor of interlocution, and maybe that glass is similar to border checkpoints or prison glass. It could also be desirous and likened to a Ferrari behind showroom glass or to candy on the other side of a windowpane.
A sense of touch can breed intimacy, empathy, and revulsion. Maybe to touch art offers the chance to know it, to track its maker and to follow her/his thoughts—a sort of braille for all and a democratic tactile sensation.
Please Touch is open through July 17 at the Target Gallery in the Torpedo Factory with visiting daily visiting hours 10am – 6pm and Thursdays 10am – 9pm. The Torpedo Factory Art Center is located at 105 N. Union St. Alexandria, VA 22314 Telephone: 703-838-4565. Get more information online at torpedofactory.org/event/please-touch