The Blanton Museum of Art
Anna Craycroft, Subject of Learning/Object of Study; installation views, The Blanton Museum of Art, Austin; courtesy Tracy Williams Ltd.
Subject of Learning/Object of Study, Anna Craycroft’s exhibition for the Blanton Museum of Art’s WorkSpace gallery, is the first in a series of installations to be created for Craycroft’s Union of Initiatives for Educational Assembly. The Blanton’s website explains this enigmatically titled enterprise as “a rubric through which Craycroft adopts educational systems into the production of her artwork.” Given her apparent yet ambiguous interest in education systems, it’s not surprising that Craycroft’s installation spills past the Klein Gallery (the room normally reserved for WorkSpace exhibitions) into the adjacent e-lounge—a space usually reserved for self-serve museum education—and along a corridor connecting the e-lounge to the Blanton’s permanent collection. Following this sprawling path, it seems that Craycroft hopes to suggest potential relationships between learning environments, museum environments and the outside world. However, her suggestions are poorly articulated and act to frustrate rather than inspire.
Craycroft filled the Klein Gallery itself with brightly colored sliding chalkboards covered in childish scrawls. I couldn’t tell if the artist made the markings herself or asked kids to draw on the boards, though my guess is the former given the drawings’ unified aesthetic. This is no minor distinction. In fact, it points to a discomfiting tension that Craycroft doesn’t resolve throughout Subject of Learning/Object of Study: Who is her intended subject? Are kids supposed to learn in Craycroft’s installation? Or are adults supposed to learn about teaching kids?
Looking for answers in the circular e-lounge, I immediately noticed the cursive text coursing along the top of the curved walls: “concrete before abstract things before words concrete before abstract things before words concrete …” It’s a loop with no discernable beginning or end. It took me a second to make sense of it, and I believe the phrase has to do with how to teach concepts. In a weird way, the sentence is self-referential: it is concrete (paint on walls), it is abstract (what Craycroft refers to is left unspecified) and it is words. Craycroft may be proposing a learning process, but one too unclear to lead the viewer anywhere. 1
Below the text, the e-lounge’s regular furniture—bookshelves above built-in desks—runs the length of the walls. On the lower bookshelves Craycroft curated a display of children’s books, each presented with their front covers face-out. On the upper shelves she arranged other children’s books binding-out and in no particular order. Among the top-shelf selections, Craycroft also interspersed books for adults, namely, texts by major education reformers like John Dewey and Friedrich Fröbel. Other redecorating touches by the artist include placing wooden educational-looking toys on half of the desks and altering the programming of the museum’s white Macintosh computers that sit on the others. One computer screen appeared divided into three registers with fragmented reprints of scholarly texts—an essay by Allan Sekula, for example—in Arial font. In the center of the room Craycroft arranged artist-made benches of different heights to create an amphitheater for public programs.
Craycroft’s redesigned e-lounge and reading room, though ostensibly made for kids, provides little for children that they don’t already have in better form elsewhere. Public libraries, for instance, already give kids the same types of resources provided by Subject of Learning/Object of Study. Libraries offer a greater and more diverse selection of books and guarantee use as a time-trusted destination. Craycroft’s installation is not going to be there long enough for a child to form a relationship with the space—few if any children will just go hang out at the Blanton after school.
Moreover, as most of the books on display were checked out from the University of Texas libraries, the exhibit actually interferes with its apparent purpose of broadening educational opportunities. I cross-checked a couple of the exhibition’s titles in the online catalog of the UT Library system. UT’s copies of each title are now listed as “unavailable”: the system uses “unavailable” when the book is reserved for a UT institution, which means that if anybody goes looking for the book they will neither find it nor be able to request it. I doubt that the standard Education major or a child searching Perry-Castaneda Library’s children’s section will think to go look in the Blanton instead.
Ironic as this may seem, Craycroft’s installation is too pedantic to genuinely educate. Amongst all the classroom-like apparatuses, I couldn’t help but feel impelled to mull on “education.” The concomitant pressure shadowed the exhibition’s most visually exciting aspects like the chalkboards and a mural in the corridor. Instead of enjoying myself, I kept thinking, “What am I supposed to learn here?” Such feelings are off-putting and anxiety-inducing, making Craycroft’s intended lesson even more difficult to discern.
If Craycroft means Subject of Learning/Object of Study as a place for adults to meditate on education (and many of the workshops in conjunction with the installation seem geared towards adults), then the installation’s ability to effectively engage children is of little immediate concern. Instead, one can understand the exhibition as a low-pressure environment within which adults may study. Or one can understand it as presenting possible ways that museums could engage their younger visitors. In the latter scenario, the child-oriented objects on display are a façade, a kind of test-lab backdrop for adults to study as a learning environment. Children-viewers then land in the awkward position of the studied object, even while adults find themselves situated as oversized children, which is unnecessarily unpleasant. The title is apt: Craycroft subjects us, and/or children, to “learning”—here a sort of unresolved meta-lesson about learning itself—even as we become objects of study.
1. By saying this, I rely on Western notions of teleology and progress. One could compare the form of Craycroft’s text to Buddhist stupas designed for circumambulation. Therein circular movement does not lock one in stasis, rather, one changes slightly with each rotation. Perhaps Craycroft is trying to approximate circumambulation; it is a rote and almost ritualistic form of learning, and yet the viewer might learn through repetitive practice.
Ariel Evans is a freelance writer based in Austin and is an Editorial Intern at Art Lies.