The topic of access has been widely discussed in the visual art world as of late.
Many cultural institutions express that they want to open their doors to audiences of more diverse backgrounds. But according to Whitney Mashburn, there’s a particular group often excluded from these conversations: the visually impaired.
And that’s something she intends to change.
Mashburn is an M.A. candidate in the University of Louisville Hite Art Institute’s Critical and Curatorial Studies program. In August, her exhibition “Let’s Keep in Touch: Conversations about Access and Tactility” opens at Gallery X in the university’s Schneider Hall.
“Let’s Keep in Touch” merges two of Mashburn’s areas of study.
“Well, my background is kind of interesting,” she says. “I have an art background, but I also have a background in disability studies and rehabilitation counseling.”
The exhibition shares findings from the “Let’s Keep in Touch” project, which was conducted, in part, by the Vancouver-based social practice artist Carmen Papalia. His work has been featured in venues such as The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, and the Columbus Museum of Art.
Papalia is also blind — he identifies as a “non-visual learner,” according to Mashburn — and much of his work focuses on institutional access. Both say art museums could be more accessible to visually impaired visitors by simply providing exhibits that can be enjoyed through touch.
Over the last year, Papalia has contacted 16 artists, of Mashburn’s choosing, whose sculptural and textile-based works have interesting touchable elements. The ensuing conversations revolved around how the artists would react to visitors feeling and manipulating their work with their hands — breaking away from a “Please don’t touch the art” mentality.
The resulting exhibition creates a participatory space in which visitors are invited to explore Papalia’s documented conversations, and to touch sculptural installations by Christina Warzecha and Corey Patrick Dunlap.
Mashburn explains that Warzecha is a sculpture artist.
“She has really neat, modular ceramic installations,” Mashburn says. “The work of hers that will be in this show was made just for this show, exploring this very idea of tactility.”
The pieces that Warzecha created for “Let’s Keep in Touch” are meant to be manipulated and moved — some will even be hung from dowels, allowing participants to rearrange them and create their own personal installation.
Dunlap’s sculptures weren’t created specifically for this show. Rather, they were meant more for a traditional gallery setting. But Mashburn says the sculptures had elements that reminded her of a game — pegs and spaces that looked almost like a game of horseshoe — that made it easy to consider them in a tactile context.
“He had not thought of people touching his work before, but he is really excited for it,” Mashburn says. “So a piece that wasn’t intended for tactility originally, but we’ve been granted permission to use it that way.”
“Let’s Keep in Touch” is on view at U of L’s Gallery X from Aug. 23 through Sept. 23.