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exhibitions

America Starts Here

November 09, 2007 through January 13, 2008

America Starts Here
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Curated by Ian Berry and Bill Arning, assisted by Mel Ziegler

artist(s)Kate Ericson, Mel Zeigler

During their decade-long collaboration, the artist team of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler produced some of the most profound and influential conceptual art projects of the times. Their work has not been widely recognized, however--many of their strongest pieces were public-art projects, shown outside major urban art centers and dismantled by the artists after exhibition.

America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler offers a fresh assessment of the artists' contributions to late 20th-century art. The exhibition is a joint project of the Tang Museum and the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Organized by the respective museums' curators, Ian Berry and Bill Arning, America Starts Here features 20 works made between 1984 and 1994, and documents the artists' complete oeuvre in a comprehensive catalogue containing full-color reproductions and new scholarship from prominent curators and critics.

Ericson and Ziegler transformed ordinary materials--books, lumber, house paint, canning jars, tap water, and more--into radical artworks luminous with social meaning. The title artwork, America Starts Here, is a 1988 mixed-media installation named after a 1980s slogan promoting tourism to Philadelphia, once the nation's capital. To suggest the city's cycle of early history, industrial boom, and urban decay, Ericson and Ziegler removed more than a hundred broken windowpanes and green plastic replacement panels from an abandoned factory in South Philadelphia, sandblasted them with maps of transportation arteries such as rivers, rails, and roads, and displayed them in positions corresponding to their original places in the old factory's façade.

Other mixed-media works incorporate farmers' feed and seed bags, jars of baby food, etched architectural stone samples and some 80 perfumes custom-designed to capture the scents of pies from many regions of the U.S. A flat-screen presentation will display early works such as Ericson's Rock Extension(1979), a New England-style stone wall that crossed a Houston lawn, mounted the porch, and proceeded straight through the house. In the mid- to late-1980s, the couple began to redefine the terms of public art, then widely castigated for its generic-looking artworks. "We tried to fit ourselves into an existing urban pattern, to infiltrate something about to happen anyway and to make art out of it," said Ziegler. Their Loaded Text(1989) featured the two artists hand-copying the 65-page text of a downtown revitalization plan for Durham, N.C., onto one of the city's badly cracked sidewalks.

Kate Ericson studied sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute, earning her BFA in 1978. She went on to complete graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts in 1982, studying under pioneering conceptualists like John Baldessari, Michael Asher and Douglas Huebler. Ericson’s early works were concerned with landscape and home commodification, two themes that remained essential when she and Mel Ziegler became formal collaborators in 1985. The pair worked together for over ten years, securing international attention for their unique site-specific and community-based works. Born in New York City in 1955, Kate Ericson died of brain cancer on October 22, 1995, in the Milanville, Pennsylvania, home she shared with Mel Ziegler.

Mel Ziegler began his undergraduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, later transferring to the Kansas City Art Institute to complete his BFA in 1978. He earned an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in 1982. It was in Kansas City that he met Kate Ericson, his future wife and artistic collaborator. Together, Ericson and Ziegler made influential site-specific installations and objects concerned with mapping trajectories, questioning history, and highlighting the specificity of places and communities—all themes that had also been important for Ziegler in his early solo works. After the tragic and premature death of his partner Kate Ericson in 1995, Mel Ziegler has continued to show works nationally and internationally. Works from the last ten years are compiled in stuffed (2003), a catalogue published by Secession, Vienna, Austria; additional images of recent works can be viewed at www.melziegler.com. Ziegler earned a Loeb Fellowship for study at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 1996, and he has lectured throughout the United States, Europe and South America. He is currently Associate Professor of Sculpture at the University of Texas, Austin.

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