When I walk into a museum, finding the special exhibition is usually easy. First, there are an impressive amount of signs that lead to the entrance of the exhibit where numerous sponsors are listed in delicate cursive. The atmosphere is stern and silent, the art work is impeccably displayed, and the air conditioning levels require me to retrieve my emergency sweater from the car.
This scenario is not the case with Philbrook Museum of Art's current Focus 4 exhibit, "RePhil." What accounts for the incongruity is that the exhibit is not isolated in a single room, but spread throughout the main level of the museum, integrated into the galleries and marked only with small numbers to indicate its separation from the permanent collection.
At first glance, "RePhil's" presence may seem subtle, but not for long. Soon, there's music floating down the hallways and cubist-style Native American paintings hanging in the Italian Baroque Gallery. This is all the work of British artist Lucy Gunning, whose artistic mischief is the source of a very topsy-turvy Philbrook.
When Gunning was selected to participate in the emerging artists series "Focus," she asked to explore the museum archives and learn the history of the Phillips family. In 1938, oil pioneer Waite Phillips gifted his mansion to the city of Tulsa and the Philbrook museum began to take shape.
Instead of using the exhibit opportunity to draw attention solely to her own work, Gunning wanted to interact with the museum and its community. The time and attention put into the exhibit is touching. Her installation piece, "RePhil," has a garage-sale find as its base and features an enlarged black and white photo of Waite Phillips in traditional Spanish costume.
For "Play List," Gunning researched the Phillips family's musical taste, and based on her findings, put together a collection of 11 songs that fill the corridors with a nostalgic personality. Many people visit Philbrook on a regular basis, but few have put such care into learning its history as Gunning has.
Although the exhibit displays some of Gunning's personal works, the majority of the exhibit is comprised of art objects that already exist in Philbrook's collection. "Back 1" and "Back 2" are two Italian sculptures in the Kress Collection that Gunning flipped, so that the terra cotta Madonnas are facing the wall, as if in the middle of a "time out."
Moving the sculptures allows the viewer to understand and appreciate the creative process behind the art work. One sculpture bears witness to heavy conservation, revealing an armature and support material. Conservation, an art within itself, is an essential practice for the vitality and longevity of museum pieces. By turning the sculptures around, Gunning asks us to acknowledge that the restoration process has its own aesthetic interest.
In addition to rotating the sculptures, Gunning also relocated multiple paintings, giving the underdogs of the museum a chance to shine. Native American art from downstairs is now prominently displayed on the main level of the museum. A marble niche that once suffered in the corner near a fire alarm and exit door currently provides the framework for Gunning's video footage.
Maybe it's silly, but walking through the exhibit I'm reminded of those DIY shows where a professional decorator comes into some lucky couple's house and, using their own furniture, gives their living room a spectacular renovation.
I guess the analogy is not that far off, considering Philbrook maintains a dual identity as part museum, part historic home.
Gunning effectively rearranges Philbrook, forcing viewers to engage with pieces of art they might never have noticed before. If people were as fascinated by fine art as they are with interior design, Gunning could score a killer contract with HGTV.
On the second floor of the museum, the education hallways are lined with a series of colorful boards, all posing different questions about art and the exhibit. Each board is equipped with a pad of post-it notes and a sharpie, enabling viewers to answer the questions or create more. The answers are just as intriguing as the exhibit, and in fact, become a part of Gunning's work, fulfilling her desire for interaction.
One board asks, "If you were to contribute a personal object to 'RePhil' what would it be?" Perhaps the most charged answer reads, "ANY work of art not done by a white male." My favorite suggestion for a new acquisition is "A collage of weapons confiscated at the airport." In response to the board that asks "What are your questions?" eight year old Krista Block simply inquired "Can we have a clown?" An excellent question, Krista!
Another board asks what the exhibit conveyed to the viewers. While the answers range from "overall enjoyable," "still thinking about it" and "this museum is stuck in the past," the answer that most struck me reads: "LUCY! You got some 'splaining to do."
While this may certainly be true, I'd like to think Gunning wants us to find our own explanations. "RePhil" is playful, adventuresome, and challenging. The exhibit begs viewers to participate, initiating dialogue with the art and rethinking its context. Gunning empowers her audience, requesting that we, as active collaborators, do our own explaining. And sometimes, this means waiting to see what will happen next.
"Focus 4 Lucy Gunning: RePhil" is on display until December 30. Make sure to pick up an exhibition checklist before beginning your tour or you might miss some of the most important details! Checklists are available throughout the museum. Call 749-7941or log on to www.philbrook.org for more information and museum hours.
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