Shelley Spector: I Live Here

Shelley Spector doesn’t actually live here, but for a month and a half, her work did. Because Room & Board is my home, and none of its spaces can be devoted full-time to art, projects here usually take the form of one-night performances or presentations. Shelley’s unusual work inspired me to undertake Room & Board’s first exhibition of objects—a true takeover of my living space by an assortment of pieces in sculpture, embroidery, print, and installation. Shelley is also at a more advanced stage in her life and career than most of the artists I’ve worked with; she is an accomplished artist, gallerist, and teacher, who lives in Philadelphia with her partner and their two teenaged daughters. I first met Shelley more than ten years ago, when I talked my way into interning for her, and since then we have been waiting for an opportunity to work together again. Her experience and practical knowledge—along with her experimentalism—gave me the confidence to propose an exhibition in my home.

From our conversations emerged Shelley Spector: I Live Here, which ran from May 15 until June 30, 2016. During this period Room & Board’s entire downstairs served as an exhibition space, open to the public with regular viewing hours, even as it continued to fulfil its usual functions as kitchen, bathroom, and living space. Shelley and I also produced an exhibition catalogue featuring a statement by her and an essay by me, along with a checklist of every work in the show. We even made a press release.

In some ways, Shelley’s work is ideal for a domestic setting like Room & Board’s. Her diverse bodies of work often address the ideas of home and family, and the used or discarded materials she favors—often thrift-store clothing, but also paper, wood, furniture, mirrors, and other domestic detritus—often lived their first lives in people’s homes. Yet aside from pieces that have entered private collections, Shelley’s work is nearly always shown in typically white-walled gallery and museum spaces. Even though she often creates new, cozier environments within these neutral zones—see, for example, her 2015 exhibition Keep the Home Fires Burning at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—I knew that it could be risky to remove her works from a context in which their status as art is not in question. They are so intimate that I worried they might be overlooked among the other odds and ends of my apartment.

Ultimately it was Shelley’s keen eye for installation that rescued them from this fate. She transformed my living room into a space somewhere between house and art gallery, and even devised a new work that set the ideal tone. For Book Buff (2016), Shelley covered the books on our shelves with white paper, nodding to the austerity of the white cube and signalling to viewers that they had entered an art space, albeit an unusually cozy one. That slippage added an extra dimension to the works; Shelley thought of them as “infiltrating” my home, taking up residence next to ordinary books, cans of food, and items of decor.

Because of the homey character of the exhibition, as well as the advantage of natural light, we planned a brunch-time opening on a Sunday afternoon. Armed with bagels, donuts, mimosas, and coffee, we opened Room & Board’s front door and welcomed in the weekend strollers. The photos that you see below, all by Nate Boguszewski, document the installation as well as Room & Board’s first truly public event.

Shelley’s “residency” entailed an interactive event, as well: on Saturday, June 11, she led a Tomato Workshop as part of her ongoing work Village (2015), which consists of a jumble of tomato-shaped pincushions inspired by her research into Victorian craft traditions, as well as her more general preoccupation with the objects a culture remembers from its grandmothers’ homes. Shelley’s intention is to lead a Tomato Workshop every time Village is exhibited, inviting visitors to make their own tomato to add to the growing group. Shelley brought the used fabrics she’d chosen, along with needles, thread, and other supplies, and taught us how to make a tomato.

Click to view the exhibition catalogue.

All photographs are by Nate Boguszewski (except the ones in which he appears; I took those). Just below here you’ll see images from the opening on Sunday, May 15.

And these are from the Tomato Workshop on June 11.