Asher and Ellis Russo's collection of poultry wishbones looks like a series of spider-fine, upside-down capital Ys, hung neatly in order from small to large on parallel wires. It is one of the most visually arresting groupings at this month's small and engaging exhibition of collections made by Humboldt County residents at the Morris Graves Museum of Art. The tiny bones come with an origin story to match. The Russos write, "We inherited this collection of chicken and turkey wishbones from our grandmother (a vegetarian) who inherited them from her mother. Granny saved each and every one of them and hung them on a string above her kitchen sink." This sentence captures some sense of the meditative, deep-seated preoccupation that sustains a lot of long-term collecting. Better yet, it hints at the complex motivations that may lie behind such projects' genesis.
The collections in Humboldt Collects, curated by Jemima Harr and Matthew Oliveri, are like and unlike one another, in interesting ways. Whether the subject at hand is Jack Nash's collection of Swatch watches or Joe Renner's collection of toy John Deere tractors, certain structuring principles remain constant: objects that fall into a category are brought into one another's presence, and variations on a theme become apparent.
For instance, it came as a pleasant surprise to see that G. Barrett Mace's collection of cribbage boards encompasses pocket-sized specimens as well as sprawling tabletop models. It turns out that cribbage boards may be shaped like fish, planks, burls and wheels. Cribbage boards may be metal-faced or they may be made of blood-red lacquer and bear the likeness of an Arabian steed on a heart-shaped field.
In the same way, antique glass insulators made for telegraph, telephone and electric lines adhere to certain specs. They are made from thick, murky glass, like coke-bottle lenses, and for whatever serendipitous reason, they skew blue, with hues ranging aquamarine to nearly clear. These limiting conditions create a strong impression of relative homogeneity. Yet, at the same time, there's great diversity within these parameters and no two of the insulators Rod Robinson has collected here look wholly identical.
Wall text indicates collectors' motivations for assembly. Lisa and Rick Paul wrote about their collection of advertising signs from the last century: "Our collection tells a story of American life and products that have come and gone." Denise Henderson states that she loves "the old-fashioned names and beautiful designs" of antique calling cards and that she was motivated "most of all by curiosity about what sort of people they were and where all their relatives are today."
As a group, these collections demonstrate the bagginess of language. Words are imprecisely tethered to the things they designate. They drape more or less loosely across the surface of the real. Often the fit is more like that of sweats than yoga pants, but no two groupings are the same. Some of the objects in these collections are more alike than others. The Russo's wishbones are more uniform than the motley figurines in Bob Doran's exuberantly diverse collection of action figures. While the wishbones come in different shades and sizes, their visual impact is predicated on the repetition of near-identical forms, Doran's assemblage is a Whitman's Sampler of heroes, villains and heels, by way of contrast — expressions of the American id one and all, running the gamut from Batman to Superman to the Incredible Hulk to a model depicting the eponymous mascot of Burbank-based fast food chain Bob's Big Boy.
Heather Walker's collection of carrot-themed items and Sue Leskiw's collection of "objects relating to chipmunks" showcase the loosest fit of all between keywords and the objects that they designate. The "carrots" and "chipmunks" in these collections exist at a next-level remove from what is real. A collection of, say, antique glass insulators really does contain glass insulators, whereas a collection of carrot-themed objects does not contain actual carrots. It does, however, contain multitudes: paintings of carrots, statuettes of carrots, carrot-shaped utensils, carrot-shaped magnets, stuffed carrots, and examples of dollhouse furniture decorated with molded representations of carrots, for starters.
If you spend enough time with these collections, be forewarned: They might induce a flashback to Intro Philosophy, specifically the part that dealt with Plato's doctrine of forms — his theory that concepts embody the most accurate and truthful reality, and that objects partially represent a transcendent essence that can only be truly embodied by as an idea. Pillboxes and cribbage boards can be grouped and labeled and, potentially, searched because we have keyword terms with which to label them. Different as they are from one another, objects in these collections belong together because each of them reflects some aspect of the form "mint tin" or "cribbage board." We slot the objects we encounter into categories shaped by words. Even if you aren't on board with Plato's idealism, his idea of forms makes it easier to perceive what seems to be a baseline feature of the human condition: the imperfect fit between words and the things they describe.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, art has changed. The keyword logic that sustains collection-making now applies to information itself. The reservoir of extant imagery is bottomless, while new images are being generated daily at a rate that far exceeds human capacities. Contemporary art has become primarily a matter of managing rather than creating content; social media has made us into self-aware archivists. We're all collectors and curators now. That means this exhibition, of and about the local community, also manages to be genuinely of the contemporary moment.
Humboldt Collects is on display at the Morris Graves Museum of Art through Aug. 22.