The Firehouse Art Center’s new exhibit, “Means of Production,” featuring works from Noah Breuer, Alexandra Knox and Manda Remmen, explores the nature of ownership, authorship and labor through three unique lenses.
“How do we tell a story about who we are in what we make, buy or own? They play with this idea of who makes these decisions and who owns the consequences,” said Firehouse curator Brandy Coons.
Knox’s two pieces in the exhibition are minimalist examinations of the time and labor involved in motherhood. “Stockpile” presents plaster cast breastmilk bags on a shipping pallet, colored milky white to provoke neutrality. On the wall directly behind it, Knox’s “Fourth Trimester: Punchcards” cast a blue-collar light on the labor and energy spent breastfeeding and nurturing her son.
“Alexandra’s work is extraordinarily personal in how she represents motherhood,” Coons said. “The Punchcard series is an expressive impression of the labor of infant care.”
“Punchcards” came from recording of almost 40% of the time that Knox would breastfeed or pump for her infant son. The stamps are marked with excess axle grease from another sculpture in the Fourth Trimester series.
“With both ‘Stockpile’ and ‘Punchcards’ I really wanted to invoke the monotony and parallels of blue-collar work, punching in and out, except I don’t feel like there is a high value placed on breastfeeding,” Knox said.
Motherhood and the commodification of bodies as both sexual and nurturing objects has become a theme in Knox’s work since having her son, who is now a toddler.
“Having a kid was definitely the most life-changing experience I’ve had, and it’s ubiquitous,” Knox said. “People have babies all the time, and I think it's overlooked because of that.”
Knox worked as a welder for a while after graduating college, another aspect that informed her desire to draw a parallel between blue-collar work and motherhood.
“I was involved in that sort of blue-collar, work your ass off, clock in, clock out industry, so I try to draw that in through material and process,” Knox said. “That’s part of where that pallet comes into play (with ‘Stockpile’) with how those milk bags are stacked like sandbags on a pallet. When you’re pumping, it feels like a commodity, it feels mass-produced.”
Continuing the theme of ownership and labor from a different perspective, Noah Breuer has screen printed textiles on display as part of his “Carl Breuer and Sons” series. Already working as a printmaker, Breuer returned to the Czech Republic to explore his family’s European history in 2016.
“My family was this Jewish family in Europe and like a lot of European Jews the story ends sadly and tragically,” Breuer said.
The Breuer family’s former textile printing business was founded in Bohemia in 1897, sustaining the town of Dvur Kralove until 1939, when it was lost to Nazi sympathizers in World War 2. The former Breuer factory was used to produce war supplies from Nazis, including the yellow stars Jewish people were forced to wear during the Holocaust.
“There’s this amazing, nauseating irony that the lifeblood of the family, the wealth and freedom that brought them into the middle class, those were the same tools used to produce the product of their oppression,” Breuer said.
Revisiting the old factory and town in the Czech Republic, Breuer found a treasure trove of textiles, swatch books, photos and images of the textiles produced by Carl Breuer and Sons.
“It was serendipitous. Reclaiming it and making it my own, putting my own artistic spin on it has been really gratifying,” Breuer said. “I’ve been able to realize an inheritance that I didn’t have before. All the original materials are gone, but I can sort of resurrect them.”
Four of Breuer’s textile tapestries hang from the walls at the Firehouse and in the center of them are a series of twelve clipboards with a different etching design on each one. Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to take a clipboard, along with vellum and colored wax, and make their own versions of the Breuer designs.
“The project is a reclamation for me, reproducing these things that were made in a factory in a more fine-art way,” Breuer said. “But when I’m doing that, there’s this interesting concept of appropriation. I didn’t design these things, but I’m repurposing them for my own benefit, so who’s the author?”
“With these rubbing clipboards, that relationship of authorship becomes much more murky. I’m setting the table, giving people the tools like clipboards and rubbing wax and gallery visitors can do what they want with that,” Breuer said. “In my mind that’s like the factory being reborn to a small degree. The means of production is reborn as people can provide the labor but also reap the benefits.”
The interactive element was part of the draw for Coons when she was curating the exhibit, along with the notions of ownership and labor.
“I’m a fan of anything we can let people lay hands on in this space. There’s something really compelling about an interactive element. This cultural idea we all understand, that we value experiences more than things,” Coons said. “So that experience of coming to the gallery and being a part of what the work represents is important to us.”
Remmen’s work is purely interactive, a series of color swatches on plywood purposefully evoking both the color swatches at a hardware store and the generic wall art found at places like Target or Michaels. The names of the paint colors have been printed across the surface, along with the dictionary definitions.
“I was going for that idea of stuff you buy that looks like you made it, but you didn’t really,” Remmen said. “I call them color samples, like the swatches at Home Depot, and you use them to build color schemes. I want people to really engage with them and play with them.”
Remmen’s works leading up to “Decor”, seen on her website, were a way for her to really address her own cultural reckoning with colonialism. The series titled “Stolen Ground” started with taking soil from lands claimed during colonialist expansion. The soil was put into bottles and labeled with the US Tax Use Zoning Code and GPS coordinates.
“Painting the shelves to really highlight the soil, I wound up with this collection of paint,” Remmen said. “I stole dirt from a Confederate monument and I thought it would be funny to paint the shelf with a color called Surrender.”
The do-it-yourself aesthetic of the shelves and paint colors inspired Remmen to create this interactive work to address the language used in decor, along with the cultural and marketing implications of paints called ‘elitist’ or ‘privilege.’
Remmen credits one of her close artist friends for pushing the digital side of the interaction. Remmen set up an Instagram account for “Decor,” with its own QR code that visitors can interact with along with the hashtag #decoratefirehouseartcenter.
“I’m hoping people will want to both publicize their color scheme and Decor set up on Instagram with the hashtag,” Remmen said. “I really enjoy that element. It has an almost meme-like quality when you put the words together like this.”
Remmen said the process of working on “Stolen Ground” and “Decor” helped her learn more about her own privilege, history and the culture of colonialism she’s descended from.
“A lot of my realizations have come while doing just what I’m asking the viewer to do,” Remmen said. “My hope is that I can share those realizations, and that other people can have their own when playing with the tiles.”
“Means of Production,” which premiers tonight, will be on display at the Firehouse Art Center at Fourth Avenue and Coffman Street until August 29.