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Every work of art raises the question of context. While you can enjoy a painting, sculpture or performance on a purely aesthetic level, how much enhancement comes with knowing something about the artists, their process or their subject matter?
In the case of Eric and Heather ChanSchatz, who have a major exhibition opening February 6 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the aesthetics are arresting—vibrant colors, shapes and patterns extending across soaring walls of the museum. But just as impactful—and crucial to fully understanding their work—is the contextual information.
The New York-based husband and wife team have worked together for more than twenty years, conducting and using research on specific communities to represent them in a unique visual way. They've focused on coal miners in Pennsylvania, American soldiers in Iraq and victims of human trafficking in Thailand, for instance, to understand these groups and issues relevant to them—and then relay them to audiences through a meticulous process of creating symbols, colors and designs.
These paintings that ChanSchatz, as the pair is called collectively, has created serve as a starting point for ChanSchatz: 22nd Century, the first major survey of their work, running February 6 to May 17 at MMoCA.
But this is no static showcase of art. The exhibition is collaborative—inviting the public to help the works evolve—and also pushes the boundaries of what a museum's role can be in art-making and engaging a community.
Heather and Eric have been in residence in Madison since this past July. With the intention of exploring Madison as an American city, a broader topic than their past projects, they've identified more than sixty themes—things like housing, clean air and literacy—to help them approach this place. For months, they've worked with museum staff to invite specific residents and organizations and the general public to share their perspectives.
They've done this by asking participants to fill out selection sheets based on those sixty-plus themes. One side is mostly visual—choose two characters, one architectural symbol, one color combination—and the other poses open-ended questions.
ChanSchatz will use these questionnaires to create a Madison-specific work of art, and they're collecting them in a book, Madison: A Cooperative Almanac, that will create a broad and inclusive snapshot of a city at a specific point in its history.
These selection sheets—or, more specifically, the act of filling them out—will become a centerpiece at the exhibition's opening on February 6. Heather says the opening, which is free and open to the public, will feel like a "working studio." A row of tables, each one devoted to one of the project's themes, will run down the center of the gallery. Visitors will be encouraged to choose topics they're interested in and sit down and fill out a questionnaire, and perhaps look at others' responses.
"They can come in and say what's important to them," says MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman.
They'll also surely want to examine the murals on the walls. With already-existing paintings in the centers, the murals expand to cover enormous swaths of wall, filling them with dazzling color and intricate designs. The murals—"Coal Mining," "Education," "Language," "Human Trafficking," "War," "Millennials" and "Revolution"—were all created in a complex, layered process involving the artists, five MMoCA staff members and twelve assistants.
"With the existing artwork, they're continuing the conversation," says communications director Erika Monroe-Kane. "They've never been able to realize the murals in the scale they have here."
The works are abstract, yet many viewers have felt impacted by their meaning. A veteran, for example, told the artists that she felt Iraq in their "War" painting, that she could see the country's mosques in it, even though they weren't directly represented.
Fleishman appreciates that ChanSchatz's visual language is not literal. "It leaves room for viewers to see their own interpretations," he says.
The paintings have magnets embedded in them, and the artists have made stainless steel "touchstones," flat, silvery sculptures that certain guests will be able to place on certain paintings in special ceremonies.
These layers of collaboration and participation—between Heather and Eric, the artists and the museum, community members and the artwork—ensure that the works are constantly evolving.
"It's hard to get more contemporary than that," says Monroe-Kane.
They also promote connections. While the paintings and murals represent specific groups around the world, they still resonate here. An interest in energy production is not limited to coal miners in Pennsylvania, and Madison has a revolutionary legacy, even if it's different from that of Cairo protesters from the Egyptian Spring.
Heather and Eric hope visitors recognize these connections, appreciate the complexities in the issues raised and understand that their work is a different way of art-making—a collaboration and celebration of expression instead of a one-way conversation.
Such involvement and understanding, they say, can ultimately spark change, whether creating civic awareness or inspiring community interaction or dialogue.
The experience of working on 22nd Century has changed the artists, too.
"The biggest change is we've been in residence," says Heather. "We've been able to be much more engaged."
By reaching out specifically to members of the community, they've received high-quality and thoughtful responses to their surveys. It's something they want to build upon when they leave Madison. And they've found that an institution like MMoCA can be a powerful partner in creating art.
"This type of working for us has maximized the potential of what we knew was in the work," Eric says. "We needed a partner. We can't do this in our studio."
Madison: 22nd Century runs February 6 to May 17 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Fore details, visit mmoca.org.
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