Where do luxury objects come from, and why do we value them? These are questions asked by Amie Siegel’s Medium Cool, her show at UH’s Blaffer Art Museum, which explores how the glossy surfaces of marble-as-fine-art come to be.
The exhibition occupies the entire museum with two video works, a collection of sculptural pieces, and a room full of paintings. Quarry, the first video piece, seductively pans from a rough, industrial marble quarry to sumptuous, perfectly-styled luxury apartments featuring marble countertops and accents. By the end of the film, the stone no longer acts as a raw material; instead, it has been transformed through an oft-forgotten industrial process. But why do we care about the result of this transformation?
Enter the second video piece, Fetish, which documents the annual deep cleaning of London’s Freud Museum. The conceptual lynchpin of the show, Fetish is the only piece showing a person interacting with the marble. Siegel captures anonymous figures handling the stone in the psychoanalyst’s former office with a Freudian level of intimacy, almost bordering on obsession. This seems to be a major clue that what’s really important isn’t necessarily the finished objects, but rather the human influence it took to transform them to their “perfect,” “pristine” final forms.
Back downstairs, a collection of wall-hanging works titled Marble Dust Paintings harnesses an industrial byproduct that has congealed and transformed to create abstract, painterly forms on fabric. These pieces speak further to the industrial processes from which the marble dust was born. In fact, the patterns are a result of dust thrown off by equipment in the same Vermont mine featured in Quarry. These pieces trace the accumulation of an otherwise worthless material, and the dust becomes both the form and content of the works. By presenting them as paintings, the marble dust exposes and questions the way value accrues in the art market.
Still, Siegel’s most explicit investigation might be Dynasty, an installation that includes a fragment from the “pink marble fantasy” of Trump Tower, two chromogenic prints, an archival pigment print, and vinyl wall text. We’re supposed to focus on the journey these objects have undergone in order to arrive in this gallery, calling attention to the role labels play in assigning value. The marble is just marble, but it takes on different weight when listed as a remnant from the president’s marquee property and placed under a spotlight.
This is the quiet brilliance of Siegel’s works, where the marble’s sensual veneer at first invites us in before each piece asks us to confront its literal and symbolic weight. Medium Cool reveals this argument at a cool pace—a slow burn offering abundant material for viewers to excavate.
Medium Cool, thru Oct. 12. Blaffer Art Museum, 4188 Elgin St. 713-743-9521. More info. at blafferartmuseum.org.