The Alchemy of Installation: an Intern’s Insights into the Arrangement of Abstractions

Abstractions - View from Front of Gallery

Before this week, my only experience behind the scenes of an art exhibition installation was as an assistant to students who were putting up their senior thesis shows at Interlochen Arts Academy, where I went to high school. It was fairly easy—all of the artists were students at the school, most of their artwork was created in the same building as the exhibition, and each artist determined where and how their work was presented. Here at Woman Made, the process is completely different; as an intern assisting with the installation of Abstractions and two accompanying solo shows by Sandra Perlow and Ruth Eckstein, I was lucky enough to be part of each step, from packing up the work in the previous show, to arranging and hanging the new pieces.

The museum and gallery mentality of “please don’t touch” is so ingrained in me that it was a little strange to adjust to the idea that not only was I allowed to touch this artwork, but I should, to take it off the walls and package it up, then take out all of the incoming work and get it ready to be installed. There’s a lot of care in all of that bubble wrapping, and with Krista Jiannacopoulos’s 48-canvas piece  from the previous 14th International Open, it almost became ritualistic. You wrap and you fold and you tape and you wrap and you fold and you tape and you develop a rhythm. 

Abstractions - View from Middle of Gallery

I began the week learning how to take apart a wooden packing crate—fun with power tools!—and ended with reading all of the artists’ statements, making sure they were ready to be printed, and then cutting them to size and affixing them to the walls next to the correct piece. It was a fun guessing game to figure out which statement went with which piece without looking at the artist’s name. Sometimes it was very clear that they went together, and other times it brought a whole new understanding to the work.

Once all of the technical issues were taken care of: when the artwork from the last show was sent away, the walls spackled, sanded, and painted, the new pieces unpacked, and the forms and instructions filled out, scanned and filed away (all of the important work that’s invisible but totally necessary for keeping everything running smoothly) we were left with the bare walls, the analytical work of “laying out,” or arranging the artwork, and the physical work of hanging it. The raison d’être, but time-wise a very small part of what went into putting the exhibition together.

View of Sandra Perlow's Solo Show

While it took fewer hours to arrange and hang, the amount of problem-solving effort that went into it was quite remarkable. Even as an art history student, I know that when I walk into a space I don’t necessarily analyze how the art is arranged. If it looks good, I know it. Because the show is comprised of work that is very strong as well as fully or semi-abstract, it was a challenge to arrange the pieces in such a way as to all be in dialogue without letting anything be overshadowed.

Since we could not take into account representational content in the arrangement of the various pieces, and they all contain so many strong colors, lines and varying statements, we had to find a way to show off all of the wonderful paintings and sculptures without letting any of them overpower or clash with one another. There are so many things to consider: color, size, media, content, line, “loudness,” whether a piece is very serious or a little playful, or too distracting when hung next to one piece but really complimentary hung  across from another. To place certain pieces together would be too obvious, others were too bright to be next to each other, others too similar or different in terms of texture, and the list goes on. I am not sure if this ability to arrange work comes more from intuition or simpl practice, but it was fascinating to observe the attunement of the gallery staff to these details within the installation process.

Opening Reception for Abstractions

The way in which the show came together was almost like alchemy, and with everything in its final place it is obvious that the pieces are not only fantastic on their own, but also deepened by the stories of the other work in the show.

-Elise Nagy, Gallery Intern

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