2017-10-20 10:12:03
And the Blue Ribbon Goes to ... Anissa Mack

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. — The state fair, that familiar ritual of the late summer and early fall, looms large in the catalog of what makes America American: agrarian industriousness meeting the tame vices of the midway.

For Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wrote the songbook of old-fashioned American values (with a wink), it’s a place, as portrayed in their 1945 musical ‘‘State Fair,’’ where housewives derive their self-worth from prizewinning mincemeat, and restless young farm folk seek romance with worldly strangers. Writing in National Geographic, Garrison Keillor, the keen-eyed observer of heartland behavior, praises the state fair for giving us the permission to forget our buttoned-up lives for a day and “plunge into the pool of self-indulgence.”

For the Brooklyn-based, Connecticut-raised artist Anissa Mack, state fair rituals are not just a seasonal recurrence, but the engine driving a continuing body of work. Around two dozen of her newest collagelike objects and sculptures inspired by a lifetime of fair-going are on view in “Junk Kaleidoscope,” a solo show at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum here, through April 22.

“Some families have Easter or Christmas. We had the state fair,” Ms. Mack recalled recently, reflecting on a childhood spent around the fairgrounds in Durham, Conn. “My grandmother was a pickle judge, my aunts always entered jams and jellies, my mom would make a quilt or needlepoint or enter vegetables or flowers, and my dad always did something — photography or horticulture, usually, sometimes baking.”

Ms. Mack, 47, who now lives and works out of a historical rowhouse in Bushwick, had her own role to play in the family holiday — aside from taking a gamble at carnival games and sampling deep fried you-name-its: Every year she’d compete in the Durham Fair’s craft competition.

“I know every artist says this, but I was always making stuff as a kid,” she said. “Plus, you could win a few bucks of prize money and you’d get into the fair for free.” The ritual would begin each August with daily trips to the mailbox to check for the Durham Fair’s entry booklet, which contained the long list of craft categories that would guide Ms. Mack’s plan of attack. (Soap carving and pumpkin decoration were among her favorites.)

That annual tradition has evolved through many twists and turns into “Junk Kaleidoscope,” a phrase that Amy Smith-Stewart, the Aldrich’s curator, likes to think of as “a ruptured view of the world through everyday cultural artifacts,” she said recently while installing the show.

Hung in frames, displayed on shelves, or arranged in domestic-scaled installations, Ms. Mack’s new work quietly exudes the motley variety of a craft show crossed with a fair exhibition hall in its mix of stained glass, gilding, silk flowers, neon lights and lots of denim. There are references to early sideshow banners, commemorative wreaths, needlepoint samplers, teen longing, and American heartthrobs.

“I’m interested in my body of work looking like the things that came out of the fair, not in their craftiness, but in their diversity,” said Ms. Mack, who cites as inspirations Ree Morton (1936-1977), Rosemarie Trockel and Robert Gober, artists known for their idiosyncratic use of various materials.

She returns to the Durham Fair almost every year and took road trips to visit state fairs through the Southeast and the northern Midwest. “Fairs are great sources for images,” she said, while assuring me that she is not obsessed. What she does obsess over, she explained, is “their collections of things, the categorization, their repetitive nature.” Fittingly, a large poster-size list hangs at the entrance to the main gallery at the Aldrich, enumerating 73 categories.

The evolution of the kind of official list that Ms. Mack would eagerly pore over as a kid, the show at the Aldrich mixes existing competition categories, like “#14 Wood, three-dimensional construction” with more ambiguous entries, like “#38 My heart wants more” and “#55 After the fact.”

The list is also a link to the exhibition’s pivotal origins, Ms. Mack’s epic project, “The Fair” (staged in 1996 and 2006). Fresh out of the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, where she earned her M.F.A. in sculpture, Ms. Mack decided to enter all 73 craft categories in the Durham Fair. It was an act of near-manic D.I.Y. industriousness, done in the name of art rather than heartlandish moral rectitude. She taught herself leather tooling, screen-printing and chair caning, and won dozens of ribbons.

“Art gave me this framework to put around the fair, this permission to allow myself to allocate an insane amount of time to making crafts — all summer, every day, two crafts a day, while working a full-time temp job,” she recalled. Real Art Ways, a nonprofit art space in Hartford, showed the items — adorned with their ribbons. The following year, Postmasters Gallery in New York showed the project.

In 2006, Ms. Mack was at it again, entering all 69 craft categories of the Durham Fair. “That second time it was more about using repetition, remaking, and memorialization to think about how I was processing these familiar images and experiences,” she said. Ten years later, she was planning “Junk Kaleidoscope,” fleshing out her interest in commemoration. “All the work in the show came from either a memory I have or an image I saw, maybe a very specific object I walked by,” she explained. “But they’re not exact reproductions, they’re combinations of a few things.”

There are several wreath motifs in the show, including “Conn Con,” from 2017, a large ring of straw festooned with ornamental corn. It’s the kind of regional homage that one might find at the fair, but also an allusion to the false impression of household bliss that the mastery of the “domestic arts” might imply. “How you decorate your house, your curb appeal — it was all very important where I grew up,” said Ms. Mack, who now has work in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Seattle Art Museum, among others.

Ms. Smith-Stewart, who came across the artist’s work in a group show at MoMA PS1 in 2002, while working as an assistant curator, said: “Anissa is interested in the storytelling power of objects, and many of the works have a narrative that can be pieced together differently depending on the audience.”

Ms. Mack’s list is a gathering of ideas that have been percolating in her psyche over the years. “#45 Amy, Amy, anyone,” for instance, refers to the artist’s childhood fascination with Amy Carter. “I was so curious about her,” said Ms. Mack, who still has the straight red hair, sprinkling of freckles and gently angular features she shared back then with America’s First Kid. “She was my ageish, but a little older. And she sort of looked like me.”

Ms. Mack hasn’t tackled the subject of Amy Carter quite yet, but that doesn’t matter. The list, for her, is a live document for future work. It can be a catalyst (or excuse) to make something new, or a way of understanding something she’s already made.

Everything in the show refers to something on the list, she explained, but some might match three, “and some categories, like Americana, might cover everything.” “Everyone’s favorite angel, 2017,” for instance, a pencil sketch of Farrah Fawcett drawn on a canvas that the artist has molded to look like white denim, could be “#20 Best of the best,” “#33 I never thought she’d take his last name,” “ or “#60 Locations, actors, obstacles.”

“Wreath,” from 2017, is a good example of how Ms. Mack might bundle together different impressions into a cohesive work. It revolves around a story she read in the paper last year about a terminally ill 14-year-old British girl whose last wish was to be cryogenically frozen. The artist printed the condensed tale, word by word, on the surface of around 300 resin-cast rings (tiny wreaths, if you will), and then arranged them among dozens of inexpensive vintage rings in a rectangular grid of foam slots, the kind of display she frequently sees at fairs and flea markets.

The work shows how nuanced Ms. Mack’s state fair resonances can be. “The girl’s story reminded me of the midway,” she said. “It’s this place of incredible hope, where you might win this huge stuffed thing, but you also kind of know you’re going to lose.”

A white neon sign casting cold light in a dark side gallery transports viewers to the midway’s fleeting alley of rickety rides and ringtoss stands. It reads “FACTS FAKES FREAKS.” Ms. Mack didn’t have political intentions when she made the sign last year — the wording came from an old sideshow banner she had seen. But the relevance today doesn’t escape her.

“The emotions generated in the space of the midway are things that really play out in other parts of American culture,” she said. “The pride of winning something for someone else, the showing off, the hucksterism.” It’s all right there.