This summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History ventures into new territory -- by putting the artists themselves on display. In so doing, the show Art Works gives a whole new meaning to the concept of “open studios.”
The first thing that strikes you when you walk into the museum’s Solari Gallery is an open, wood-framed artist studio within the gallery, where Hua Meng Yu, who prefers to go by her artist moniker "Miss Tanq," is giving Bob Russo of Soquel a Yi Jing reading.
"Bob, I’d like you to think of an area of your life that you would like some more clarity on," Miss Tanq says to Russo. Russo “asks the cards” to provide him with some sense of direction for his personal goals and focus. He has an eight-year-old daughter, he says, and Miss Tanq understands that to mean his home life is especially important to him right now.
Based on this interaction, the artist picks out one of her handmade masks, puts it on Russo, and snaps a photograph of him. Called “Grandmother,” it’s the face of an old Chinese woman ringed with faux white fur. The mask suits Russo perfectly.
"The mask comes to life only when somebody puts it on," Miss Tanq says. "It is actually made to be embodied."
This entire encounter is not the kind of thing you expect to find at an art museum. And that’s the idea.
"I think people expect to find an institution dedicated to art objects," says curator Wes Modes. "I think they expect to find things on the wall. We want to pull the walls off of that experience. So that you can look inside, see the artist behind that to see the art process that happens. And then step into that process and take part in making art."
All of the artists in this exhibition have come up with different ways to provide audience members with deep insights into their process, using everything from Yi Jing to music.
Nanci Amaka is a conceptual artist born and raised in Nigeria, who makes print and textile sculptures in response to conversations about trauma and memory. There are several stations in Amaka's open studio at the exhibition. For those people comfortable with the idea, the artist creates bright orange prints of their scars while they tell her the story behind the scars.
Meanwhile, other visitors to Amaka's studio might prefer to sit in solitary fashion at a desk and write down stories about their scars. Then the artist tucks the texts into soft, fabric sculptures that she hangs up in the gallery.
Amaka explains she intends to change the way people think about the experiences that created the scars. "These things are about moments in our lives that were traumatic and owning them," Amaka says.
You might think scars are yucky. But Amaka says many people feel
proud of them. "They love them!" the artist says. 63-year-old Lucy Kemnitzer of Santa Cruz cetrainly feels that way about her scars. She’s gone to the hospital many times over the years, and sees each surgery scar as evidence of a victory over everything from childbirth to breast cancer.
"From the cesarean scar that saved me and my son up to the most recent one, which is a lumpectomy scar, all of the scars I got either saved my life or they're enhancing my life," Kemnitzer says, pointing to a map she drew of her body.
The exhibition is also constantly changing, as none of the artists in Art Works are there the whole time. You never know what you’ll be asked to do when you walk in. The only certain thing: it’s not enough to observe from a distance.
Art Works continues through Sunday, Sep. 25. More information here.