The show is art historically informed and critical at the same time. The first episode is a cautionary tale about the use of artistic iconography to establish religious and political power. The second episode brings to life the prehistoric figure “Venus von Willendorf” who likely represents a fertility goddess who lived around 27,500 BC. It was carved out of limestone.
“I would love for our visitors to understand how art history is history,” said Christina Vassallo, executive director of Fabric Workshop and Museum. “It’s the visual reflection of what’s actually happening in the world at the time. Ollie, the character, understands that his obsession with online fame and popularity really does have art historical precedent.”
The show has the clunkiness of a television sitcom. The lines sometimes sound hollow, and an inserted laugh track shakes up the senses. This is on purpose.
“The laugh track is there to annoy smart, art-loving people,” Musson said. “They’re so smart they don’t want to be told when to laugh. It’s something I really enjoy, but I know that certain people with certain inclinations will say, ‘Oh, Philistines.’ To hell with them.”
Musson has a performance history in his art practice. He was a member of the hip hop group Plastic Little (“Actually I’m still in the band, it still exists even though we haven’t played a show in years.”) and is best known for the 2010 series ART THOUGHTZ from Talking Head YouTube videos in which he played a character named Hennessey Youngman who criticized the art world.
Musson said he gave up performing after ART THOUGHTZ, preferring instead to work without putting himself first. He briefly moved to New York and then returned to Philadelphia a few years ago. In 2014 one of his abstract paintings was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “Trying to find our spot off in that light, light off in that spot.”
As His History evolved over the artist residency, he was drawn back from playing a character. What he said had started out as a nascent concept, revisiting Hennessy Youngman “on a budget,” and eventually evolved into a different character, concept, and fully realized visual world.
One of the founding programs of the fabric workshop and museum is their artist residency, where an artist is invited to experiment with the fabrication equipment and expertise of the organization’s staff to conceive and create something new.
The residency aims to encourage artists to take risks and develop their work in an unexpected direction. Vassallo calls it the “FWM moment”.
“We know that artists who experiment and collaborate with us will see their work in a fresh light and with a new perspective,” she said. “We like to see how this new perspective evolves over time. That’s the FWM moment: where do the experiments they did with us show up later in their careers?”
The three episodes of His History are the main part of the Stoffwerkstatt exhibition, which also includes the film set. An animatronic Ollie doll sits on a derelict couch and is activated by “smart” sensory triggers that can detect the number of visitors in the room and their movement. He’s programmed to turn his head to see people walking by and occasionally make snarky comments.
Behind the set is another gallery showing the process used by the fabric workshop to create the various items in the exhibition.
Jayson Musson: His History of Art is on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum until November 13.