Peggy Preheim: Little Black Book



of an Exhibit

by Ellen Williams

Published on December 16, 2008 , Modified on December 21, 2008

  • Museum: Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

  • Visit Date: December, 2008

  • Description:

    Vast expanses of white greet the visitor to the Peggy Preheim: Little Black Book exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (through Feb. 9, 2009) – - 20’ white walls, white frames, off-white mat board, white paper. An occasional black leather bench offsets the white. If you do not flee the starkness, tiny exquisite drawings, photographs and sculptures draw you closer and closer. So close, in fact, that guards jump up to follow you, and raised frames tacked to the blond wood floors are necessary to establish safe distances.

    I visited the exhibition on a cold, grey Sunday afternoon. I was the sole visitor that day, which may explain why the white seemed so white. The exhibition was dauntingly minimalist. A short introductory panel written by Aldrich Director Harry Philbrick hangs at two access points. Only two other very brief text panels are displayed within the entire space. From this copy, I learned that the show represents the first comprehensive survey of Peggy Preheim’s “hauntingly delicate work”. Preheim’s process is explained, as are the sources of her inspiration. I understood that her work explores implied narratives, which are left to the viewer to fulfill.

    With this background, I began to examine the art. Working in pencil, photography and clay, Preheim creates tiny figures, many of which resemble humuculi. Fetal figures rest in glass containers or float on paper. They are meticulously rendered in sharp detail, making them both beautiful and disturbing. The drawings look like photographs; the photographs look like drawings. The figures seem otherworldly, timeless – and unmoored. Fascinated by the technique and the uniqueness of Preheim’s vision, I found myself nose to glass, with guards all around me.

    The Aldrich has made an attempt to soften the tone of this exhibition and make it a little more user-friendly. At one entrance, a visitor can take a 6” x 9” card that contains a photograph, brief explanatory text, a series of questions to prompt discussion, things to do there (it’s unclear how they could be done in the galleries), things to do at home, and vocabulary words. Elsewhere, two black leather benches harbor magnifying glasses to help you see better. Also, the exhibit wanders through several small rooms; an appropriate choice given the smallness of the pieces. In one room, I sat on a bench – - not to see the pieces (which were too small) but to read the hardcover catalogue that had been placed there. I loved the experience. I learned much, much more about the artist, her art, and also about the enormous emotional connection that the Director has for her works. The book conveyed the intimacy and sense of conversation that was stripped from the art by the mostly empty white walls, the guards, and the cold, echoing floors.

    Ironically, an exhibition so much about narrative was missing the Aldrich’s unique, participatory audio narrative bestowed upon other exhibits in the museum. I would have loved to hear the Director read from the letters and poems he wrote for the catalogue, and I would have loved to add my own narrative to some of the works. Also missing was the high-quality brochure, found in other galleries, that explains a little bit about the art and the artist. For instance, I have no sense of Preheim’s life and no idea why her show was titled Little Black Book.

    Small works of art present a special challenge to exhibit designers. How do you get people close enough to see but far enough away to be safe? Small works are intimate, personal, delicate. How do you support and enhance that sense of intimacy? Unlike large works, which often stun one into silence, small pieces invite conversation. How do you create a space that encourages comment or narrative? Peggy Preheim: Little Black Book is an invitation to visit a strange, lovely, evocative world. Yet, I felt lonely when I left and I believe the works themselves are lonely there, too.

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