Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler

The decade-long creative partnership of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, which was cut short by Ericson’s death in 1995, resulted in a substantial body of public projects, site-specific installations, and mixed-media sculptures, all marked by a keen social conscience, an idiosyncratic wit, and a cool, Minimalist-inspired aesthetic. With twenty carefully selected works, including models, plans, and documentary slide shows, their recent retrospective paid tribute to the duo’s facility for poetically decoding the hidden agendas of a hypercapitalist nation.

The show takes its title, “America Starts Here,” from an expansive architectonic wall installation completed in 1988, itself named for Pennsylvania’s official tourist slogan. The work consists of 105 broken panes of glass and fiberglass replacement panels, salvaged from the derelict National Licorice Factory in downtown Philadelphia. The artists sandwiched these between panes of new glass and mounted them according to their original configuration. Sandblasted on the outer layer are tracings of rivers, historic trails, and railroad lines that not only refer to the historical drive toward westward expansion but also evoke the physical and metaphorical cracks found in government buildings and monuments. In places, the glass is further inscribed with images of New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, tourist sites. At the List, a wall text reveals that the salvaged panes were replaced with new ones at the original site; the project’s critique of Manifest Destiny is thereby augmented and an element of civic regeneration introduced.

Another large-scale wall installation referring to the building of America, Stones Have Been Known to Move, 1986, consists of a stylized map of the United States constructed from foot-square promotional samples of granite, limestone, and marble. Each square has been inscribed with the latitude and longitude of the quarry from which it was mined and the name of a place where the material has been used, thereby charting the displacement of our natural resources. Similarly, in Constitution on Tour, 1991, ten model train hopper cars arranged on two parallel sections of track carry the shards of a shattered slab of white marble (of the same type that covers the exterior of the Supreme Court Building) on which the artists had previously inscribed the full text of the US Constitution.

In addition to glass and stone, Ericson and Ziegler were fascinated by the use of specific colors as signifiers of culture and power. The dollhouse-size Camouflaged History Maquette, 1991, documents their repainting of an actual house in Charleston, South Carolina, just outside the city’s designated historic district. The artists covered the building with military camouflage consisting of seventy-two colors approved by the local Board of Architectural Review for use on homes inside the district. Each color patch was labeled with its actual trade name, and the fact that these included the likes of “Confederate Uniform Gray” and “Rebellion Blue Black” made the subtext of Civil War–era segregation bitingly apparent.

Squeaky Clean, 1993, is a weathered blanket chest that opens to reveal a hundred or so bars of soap and a pile of soil gathered at the geographical center of the United States. This tongue-in-cheek commentary on middle-American “whiteness” has literally yellowed as the soap has aged, and its debunking of the geographically centered construction of racial identity has strengthened accordingly. Dianna Drawings, 1995, an array of sketched-on napkins dating from the period when Ericson was too ill to begin any major public works, also shows that the pair had a sense of their project’s continuing importance and reveals that they were determined to pursue their distinctive take on American history until their own story’s end.

Francine Koslow Miller