Competition: US & Canada
Artist Ann Agee’s works challenge the traditional notions that decorative and fine arts are distinct (with the decorative always subordinate) and that “utilitarian” and “art” are antonyms.
Agee attended the Cooper Union School of Art (B.F.A., 1981), and on her graduation was awarded the A. I. Friedman Traveling Scholarship, which enabled her to stay in northern Italy for three months’ study of the paintings there. She then continued her studies at Yale School of Art (M.F.A., 1986), supported by a Yale Fellowship; on her graduation the Yale faculty recognized her exceptional abilities as a painter with the Ely Harwood Schless Memorial Fund Prize.
Although her paintings were appreciated at Yale, when she began experimenting in 1985 with clay and decorative glaze painting traditions, her fascination with the myriad possibilities of that medium was studiedly ignored by many of her teachers. Agee persisted nonetheless. Support from an NEA grant in 1989 and a grant in 1990 from the Empire State Craft Alliance to buy a kiln enabled her to start producing the ceramics that the Ann Nathan Gallery in Chicago soon began exhibiting.
One of the biggest influences on her artistic development was an artist’s residency in 1991-92 at the Kohler plumbing factory in Wisconsin. Working in its industrial pottery division was a revelation to her. “What changed me and affected me deeply was the factory itself,” she recalled. “This experience deepened my respect for manual work, for labor, and it made me see feminism as gender elusive. I identified with the worker, and craftsmanship seemed something important to hold on to and flaunt rather than give up for the sake of modernist ideals.”
Agee’s time there and in 1993 at a ceramics factory in Guanajuato as part of an NEA U.S.-Mexico Exchange program honed her mastery of the medium and sharpened her artistic vision. Her expertise was very evident in her very first show in New York, at the New Museum’s Bad Girls group exhibition in 1994. Her contribution to that show was Lake Michigan Bathroom, consisting of a functional bathroom rendered in the style and palette of delftware, with the standard bucolic scenes of that genre replaced by images of all the ways we use water. The individual porcelain tiles that formed the mosaic back wall and the porcelain bathroom fixtures were all handmade by her. On the strength of that exhibition, later that same year the Yoshii Gallery mounted Agee’s first solo show, which consisted of sex toys, again rendered in blue-and-white porcelain.
Agee’s next show at Yoshii, in 1996, revealed a shift in her focus. For the first time she exhibited her figurines and wallpapers; although her rendering of both would evolve over the years, figurines and wallpapers became signature works for her. Maureen Sherlock’s aptly titled essay for the show’s catalogue, “Quotidian,” underlined Agee’s determination to point out the beauty of the mundane. The Brooklyn Museum, Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, and the New-York Historical Society exhibited her figurines shortly thereafter, and in 1999 The New York Times Magazine commissioned her to produce figurines to illustrate its fashion pages.
The figurines she created for her Back to the Land series depicted the various steps involved in the slaughtering of chickens. Exhibited in the Rotunda Gallery in Brooklyn in 2004, the figurines were intended to call to mind the pre-industrial, since they were hand-sculpted, and the contemporary world, since they confronted the twenty-first century viewer with a reality usually hidden from sight.
In Boxing in the Kitchen, she assembled acrylic-painted figurines based on everyday elements of her own home life in a surreal pink landscape on top of an ordinary table that she constructed. The installation, which she described as “another play on the richness of the history of figurines: a personalized commedia dell’arte dessert table,” was first exhibited at P.P.O.W. in 2005 and later at Virginia Commonwealth University (2007) and the Katonah Art Museum (2008).
Agee’s work took another turn with Agee Manufacturing Co. (winter catalogue), which was included in the Dirt on Delight: Impulses that Form Clay show at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in 2009. She sculpted each piece, then handmade several replicas of them (a reference to factory-like mold castings), then set up her pure white, rococoesque figurines as a shopkeeper might, row on row, on a tiered table, creating, as she explained, “a visual conversation that touched on feminism, historical reenactment, craft, labor, class and modern family life—issues that propel me.”
With Rules of the Pattern, her 2009 solo show at Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, a number of her artistic themes converged. A kind of artistic rendering of her home and play on domesticity, the show included parodies of home décor: her lopsided, elaborate vases and playful figurines, once again in pure white, were displayed on a table she constructed, and three painted wallpapers depicted three rooms in her home, from a slightly skewed perspective. Gross Domestic Product, another of her offerings in the Locks Gallery show, consisted of “delftware” plates painted with household images, such as dish racks and ovens, that were mounted together as a wall decoration.
Agee took her wallpaper works to a new level with the 2009 installation Super Imposition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She replicated with painstaking stenciling and painting on rolls of mulberry paper one of the museum’s period rooms, the richly furnished and decorated Robert Adam Lansdowne Drawing Room, then hung the depictions on the walls of the rustic Millbach kitchen, another period room in the museum, as commentary on both socioeconomic classes and the art of the ordinary. Intrigued by its possibilities, she plans to use this “cut and paste” method again to create more “huge panoramic wallpaper souvenirs.”
Her Guggenheim project builds on both Agee Manufacturing Co. and Super Imposition, creating within an exhibition space a “general store” with wallpaper, shelving, and a stock of her porcelain pieces, complete with a handprinted catalogue.
In addition to her Guggenheim Fellowship, Agee has received support not only from the NEA but from grants from the Wisconsin Arts Board; the New York Foundation for the Arts, including its Felissimo Design Award (1997); and the Tiffany Foundation. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum; the New-York Historical Society; the Henry Art Museum in Seattle; the Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami, Florida.
From 2006 through 2010, Ann Agee was a visiting lecturer at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. In 2011 she had a one-month artist’s residency at the Lux Institute in Encinitas, California, which culminated in a solo exhibition of her work.