Large-scale works on a small Moraga stage: Christo, Jean-Claude
exhibit at Saint Mary's
By Lou Fancher
The big/small dynamic of expansion and confinement are the subject matter of an intriguing set of exhibits and discussions coming to the Museum of Art at Saint Mary's College.
A traveling exhibit organized by the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa features collector Tom Golden's unique assortment of art by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, famous for their large-scale environmental works like the 2,050 white nylon-paneled "Running Fence" that stretched 24 miles in Sonoma and Marin Counties for 14 days in 1976.
Contrast that with the intimate "Take a Picture/Tell a Story" portraits of photographer Robert Gumpert, who captures patients at Alameda County's Psychiatric Emergency Services at John George Psychiatric Hospital in haunting audio interviews and acute, unadorned black-and-white imagery.
The exhibits open Jan. 25 with a discussion at 2 p.m. led by Raphael Sperry, president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, and Terry Kupers, an institute professor at The Wright Institute and Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.
Days before the opening, staff at the Hearst Galleries worked feverishly to install original drawings, sculptures, collages and photographs created by Christo and Jeanne-Claude and culled from a 37-year period of their partnership.
"The variety and quantity of works is truly amazing," museum Director Carrie Brewster said. "It took all of our design skills to fit over 100 pieces into our 1,600-square foot gallery space."
Focused on the temporality and permanence of art in urban and rural landscapes worldwide, Christo's projects often require years to plan and are entirely self-funded. Sales from preparatory drawings, collages and models like those included in the traveling exhibit allowed the artists' ambition to soar: placing 204 oil barrels on a narrow Paris street as a response to the East Berlin Wall ("Wall of Oil Barrels -- Iron Curtain") and unfurling 3,100 umbrellas in two valleys -- one just north of Los Angeles and the other north of Tokyo, Japan ("The Umbrellas") and wrapping Berlin's Reichstag, a government building erected in 1894, in 119,603 square yards of fabric.
Of course, they also famously wrapped less radical items like bottles and staplers in regular wax paper, altering the viewer's relationship with a familiar object and prompting speculation on a broad, conceptual scale about an item's functionality.
Jeanne-Claude and Christo were born on the same day -- June 13, 1935. While Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, Christo's solo projects continue to be provocative, and often political. A current installation involving six miles of silvery fabric suspended over the Arkansas River has a federal judge refusing to intervene in a lawsuit brought (and lost) by an environmentalist group protesting the art will negatively impact fish and visitors.
Questions about the negative impact of confinement or outside control can also be asked about prisons and the criminal justice system in general, according to Sperry.
"Current jail and prison designs emphasize control and security operations; a mode of thinking that reaches its endpoint in super-max prisons," Sperry wrote in an email. "What is the impact of today's prison designs on people's human rights?"
From the searing portrayals in Gumpert's work, the answer is mostly harsh. Sperry and Kupers will explore the isolating effects of solitary confinement, correctional mental health care facilities and built environments in their discussion.
Asked to explain the ethical issues he hopes to see addressed through changes in the practices of architects designing prisons, Sperry said he must first emphasize that the greatest injustices occur when people are wrongfully incarcerated, not when prisons are poorly designed.
"How you provide comfort while violating people's human rights is a pernicious question," he said. "But accepting that some subset of people are justly incarcerated, then rehabilitation should be the goal — it is required by international human rights treaties."
Prisons designed for rehabilitation would be small, built for 200 people, not the supersized 1,000-people facilities he said are an "unfortunate trend" in California. Daylight, views to the outdoors, quiet spaces for social interaction, education, and productive work, and acoustically absorptive materials and reasonable furniture, he said, would balance observation with opportunities to build trust. Without these features, Sperry said, prisons will remain impersonal and anti-social.
While his opinions come from years of research about the intersection of architecture and human rights, Sperry said artists play a vital role in framing the issues for society. Decrying political leaders for a "tough on crime" mindset that dehumanizes people, he said, "artists can be extremely important: by humanizing people in prison and telling their stories, they criticize and undermine the cultural constructs that allow the disregard and contempt for prisoners. Artists are advancing recognition that everyone -- even people in prison -- has human rights that need to be respected."