Aaron Copland’s 20th century American classic Fanfare for the Common Man kept scampering through my consciousness like an already known back story to the Weisman’s new exhibition Common Sense: Art and the Quotidian, on display through May 23. The show’s thesis, borne out through a range of historical and contemporary works drawn from the museum’s collection, is to demonstrate that art often depicts—or embodies—common aspects, ideas, and a purposefulness found at the center of much of what we call life. Ours is not necessarily a world frosted with rarified fine art, but rather a world with a visual language of commonly shared elements and understood things, some of which happen to have been transformed into art. In other words, art is not separate from, but a part, of life.
The exhibition—the second in a planned series of three exhibits exploring themes of art and the commonplace—is introduced with a text panel exploring the complexity of the word “common” (common ground, common behavior). The panel cites Thomas Paine’s radical and transforming 18th century essay Common Sense. Like the French horns, the timpani, and the resonating gong of Fanfare, the show is demarcated into sections with titles such as “Common View,” “Common Language,” “Common Humanity,” and “Common Goods.”
In some of the works, it is the subject matter that is common—such as Lewis Hine’s early 20th century photographs of children playing ball behind tenement housing (works which helped institute child labor reform), or the workers in Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs that made vivid the malaise and desperation of the 1930s.
Jan Estep’s video Time and Time Again takes this notion one step further. The video documents inmates of the NE Correctional Center in Missouri answering the same question. Estep effectively weaves their answers together in a provocative statement.
In a different vein, Steven Shore’s 1974 photos of tract housing in Texas and Oscar Schlemer’s 1927 oil-on-panel painting Solitude transform common landscapes into the uncommon.
Other artists depict common objects, elevating them to a more profound but still commonly understood status. Jim Dine’s 1995 print of a man’s bathrobe, Very Picante, and Andy Warhol’s print of a can of Campbell’s New England Clam Chowder, from 1968-69, prompt us to see ordinary objects of everyday life in a visually heightened manner. We appreciate—or at least respond to—the ordinary in a new way. Does the mundane become art because it is depicted by an artist? Or is there something artful and aesthetically compelling about the commonplace?
Other works are featured because they are made from common materials. Donald Lipski’s untitled wall sculpture is created from a big rusting steel hook strung with multiple glass disks, like a stack of CDs on a spindle. Judy Onofrio’s freestanding sculpture featuring a fish at the top, Big Catch, is created from an amalgam of found objects from glass baubles, ceramic shards, and pieces of mirror. Perhaps the epitome of the common in art is German conceptualist Joseph Beuys’s 1974 Noiseless Blackboard Eraser, which is just that—a black felt blackboard eraser.
“We tend to think of individuality and commonality as opposites, but that is not necessarily the case,” says exhibition curator Diane Mullin. “They are closer than one might think. That tension is at the core of the exhibition.”
If there is a criticism of the exhibition, it is that it is not tightly enough focused; there is not enough “tension.” Although it was welcome to see works from the Weisman’s fine collection, Common Sense: Art and the Quotidian is too wide-ranging, featuring a body of work so disparate that it loses its curatorial momentum.