Thinking about Art in Windows, Part I

What makes storefront, or museum-front, window displays of art successful? It’s a question I would like to consider as we gear up for another year of art displayed in the windows of unoccupied properties in historic downtown Racine and Kenosha. Groups like ExposeKenosha and the Racine Arts Council have worked with varying degrees of success with artists and galleries to place the work of local artists and students in the highly visible storefront windows of businesses closed due to very tough economic times.

Before moving to Racine last June I didn’t think much about street side display windows as venues for art. But as it turns out, the first artwork I saw in Racine was Matthew Eskuche’s installation entitled “Agristocracy,” made of hundreds of  pieces of the artist’s “trash glass,” in the Racine Art Museum’s window gallery at the corner of Main and 5th.

Mathew Eskuche, “Agristocracy,” Racine Art Museum, August 2010-July 24, 2011. Photography: Jon Bolton, Racine.

This is a very elaborate still life display of white glass objects arranged on an extra long antique wood table that has been on view all year in RAM’s window gallery. It’s scheduled to come down in a few weeks on July 24th , so if you have not seen it yet, take a look on your next drive by RAM. Better yet, park the car and take a close look at the ghostly still life installation that looks like a frozen tableau from Miss Havisham’s dust-filled, ruined mansion.

Matthew Eskuche, “Agristocracy,” Racine Art Museum, August 2010-July 24 2011. Photography: Jon Bolton, Racine.

If you do stop you’ll notice that Eskuche’s table has an ecological angle. It is crowded with hundreds of the artist’s “trash glass,” flameworked borosilicate glass reproductions of discarded styrofoam cups, pop bottles, plastic water bottles, wine bottles, to-go cup lids and straws. Crafting elegant handmade replicas of pure waste, throw-away objects designed to have a few minutes or hours of use but will live for ages in landfills, Eskuche turns ephemeral garbage into substantial material objects meant for aesthetic and conceptual contemplation.

Image from the artist’s brilliant website shows the process of production of the RAM installation.

The still life portion works better than the rest of the installation (which changed from time to time over the year run of the show) composed of hanging lamps that the artist designed for the window and large backdrops of a super-sized cash register receipt and styrofoam cup logos.

Eskuche’s RAM window gallery installation speaks to the insatiable appetite for stuff in a throw-away culture, and I believe is meant to encourage viewers to contemplate the unsustainable economy of waste that permeates contemporary life.

Eskuche’s “trash glass” borrowed from his webpage.

A weakness of this work might be the way that it mimics, perhaps too closely, the style of high-end department store windows, with their graphic backdrops and elegant modernist interiors used for product placement. Unless one gets very close to the “trash glass”—close enough to see that it is an ironic representation of all of our garbage—it is difficult to distinguish this “art” from a commercial display. Framed as it is by the polished industrial architecture of the museum, and facing the Johnson Outdoors Showroom just across the street, Eskuche’s product-inspired artwork is swallowed up by the cool modernist cityscape that surrounds it.   I wonder how many viewers have even noticed it.

About Patricia Briggs
Patricia Briggs is the director of galleries and curator of exhibitions at Jamestown Community College in Western New York. She writes the blog "Scene Unseen: Viewing Notes" about visual art in her community.

7 Responses to Thinking about Art in Windows, Part I

  1. Terry says:

    I think it’s a strength, not a weakness, that the installation looks a lot like “high-end department store windows.” That’s what catches my eye and makes me think. I also think that it’s great that the installation has been up for nearly a year. My understanding and appreciation of it has grown as I’ve seen it in different seasons and through my own changing moods. In fact, I pass by the window every day on my way home from work. It is definitely worth pulling over and getting out of the car to take a close look. Thank you for writing about this important work that might otherwise have gone unseen.

    • Terry,
      Thanks for the feedback on this. I think it is smart that Eskuche’s installation looks like a department store window. Conceptually is works, but I think it doesn’t work when it is all said and done. I think that most people will not recognize it as art, and because they don’t “see” it as art, they won’t ponder its meaning.

  2. sue morgan says:

    As a kid, my family would travel to downtown Pittsburgh every Christmas to view the decorated storefront windows of Hornes; and Kaufman’s department stores. The windows were magical. They were worlds of wonder, magic and enticement. They may have included products and merchandise from within the store, but it didn’t matter. The sense of wonder and awe provided me, as a kid, a connection to the brick and mortar, that was beyond brick and mortar. The “store” held a spirit, a connection to something more than the transactions of dollars and cents. The art installations in store fronts give me that same feeling, a connection to something more than the brick, mortar, dollar and cents. A sense of spirit and of life.

  3. Anna says:

    I think that what makes a successful storefront installation is just the fact that it is there and boldly being whwatever it is. With such an installation, an artist can reach a previously inaccessible audience, perhaps having an impact, perhaps creating a fan, a thinker, or a sidewalk critic. All of that is good.

  4. Samira says:

    Hi Patricia,

    Great contemplation! I personally struggle with my own gallery window and whether or not to participate in some of the Window Gallery projects as an artist. In a printmaking medium I find that I struggle with scale (our window in spacious and deep) and practical things like protecting art from heat, sunlight etc.

    I agree that the current window does not say, “Look this is art!”

    Do you think perhaps there should be a label or a greater “organisational framework” (Ravelli, 2006) to give the viewer more insight into the installation?

  5. Sam, I often think that there should be more explanatory text and this window could really use it.

  6. When I first saw this installation I was driving ,I took it in as a highend giftshop window.
    On foot I approached it with the anticipation of finding a “nest” or a “boneyard” . These objects were living a life with each other and Im sneaking up on them.
    The glass provided me the spectator viewpoint, Had they been closer (!)I would have had the impluse to break them or move them ….a kind of murphys law feeling of destroy these precious objects !! Im excited to see familiar common forums used to trick us. The risk is dismissing them when vie3wed from a car.The payoff is coming upon them on foot ,and being rewarded (and frustrated) by enticing objects that we can only purchase with our eyes.

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