press release

Bottle: Contemporary Art and Vernacular Tradition explored the use of the bottle in contemporary art making, and sought to reveal how deeply rooted the bottle is as an archetypal object in our culture. Curated by Aldrich director of exhibitions Richard Klein, the exhibition opened at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum on September 19, 2004 and remained on view through April 10, 2005.

Bottles are so ubiquitous in everyday life that they have become practically invisible to us. Developed over two thousand years ago with the birth of glassblowing, the bottle as a functional object continues to be indispensable to the modern world. However, bottles have also served a less practical purpose in the recent past—as both subject matter and material for a diverse range of contemporary artists. The exhibition questions why this common utilitarian object has attracted the interest of so many artists.

Rather than focusing on glassblowing as an art or craft, Bottle examined the use of the bottle as a poetic container, a space that is both in our world and uniquely separated from it. The nature of the bottle as a spiritual space, its metaphorical potential, and its use as container for liquor ("spirits"), drew self-taught artists to use it, particularly in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The bottle's intrinsic psychological and physiological associations, as emphasized by folk artists, attracted the attention of the Surrealists in the 1920s and other modernists who were interested in raw, unmediated expression. Additionally, the bottle's role in preserving food and biological specimens has not gone unnoticed as a rich source of meaning over the years. Artistic revolutionaries including Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Jean Dubuffet, and Joseph Beuys have all understood the bottle's potential power as a vehicle for aesthetic inquiry.

Exhibition artists included Joseph Beuys, Dove Bradshaw, Bethany Bristow, Tony Feher, Phil Frost, David Hammons, Mona Hatoum, Damien Hirst, Whitfield Lovell, Josiah McElheny, Barry McGee, Sean Mellyn, Maria Porges, Charles Ray, Alison Saar, Claude Simard, and Kiki Smith. In addition to selecting recent works, The Aldrich also commissioned several new pieces especially for the exhibition. In an age increasingly governed by electronic media, Bottle illustrated how humble containers can hold a collective fascination that transcends both time and place.

The exhibition began with a brief exploration of the bottle in art from popular sources. A selection of "whimsy" bottles from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum (New York) provided bottles that reflect the earlier European traditions of building objects, such as ships, inside glass containers. Other objects from popular culture presented as an introduction were an original "Mrs. Butterworth's" syrup bottle from the 1970s, a Jean-Paul Gaultier "Madonna" perfume bottle from the early 1990s, and a collection of Poire Williams brandy bottles. Poire Williams is a French pear liqueur whose beginnings date back over 400 years. The distilling method is intrinsically tied to its bottles, since the pears are grown in glass bottles, which are subsequently filled with liquor and sealed.

The exhibition also examined the role of the “bottle tree” in twentieth century art and culture. Rooted in an early African belief that evil spirits can be captured in glass bottles, the bottle tree is a folk tradition once common in the rural South and in Caribbean communities. A bottle tree is made by selecting a tree with upward-pointing branches, such as a cedar, and then stripping off the foliage. Bottles, usually in a variety of colors, are then placed upside down on the branch ends. The form has evolved in the twentieth century from being primarily used for ceremonial and religious purposes to also serving a decorative function. A handful of individuals are well known for continuing this tradition in contemporary art making, including African-American artists David Hammonds, Alison Saar, and Nari Ward who have adopted bottle tree imagery in their work. Noted Southern folk art historian William Arnett has documented contemporary bottle trees and bottle tree-inspired sculptures. The exhibition included a series of Arnett's photographs, along with several anonymous bottle sculptures from his collection.

Exhibition support was provided by: Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation


Bottle: Contemporary Art and Vernacular Tradition

mit Joseph Beuys, Dove Bradshaw, Bethany Bristow, Tony Feher, Phil Frost, David Hammons, Mona Hatoum, Damien Hirst, Whitfield Lovell, Josiah McElheny, Barry McGee, Sean Mellyn, Maria Porges, Charles Ray, Alison Saar, Claude Simard, Kiki Smith