An Art Exhibition in an Unlikely Place

Matt Nichols upends traditional art expectations in his exhibition, “SomethingDivine.”

Matt Nichols, “SomethingDivine,” 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Unless you’re looking for Matt Nichols’s exhibition, “SomethingDivine,” you may miss it. On the DePaul Art Museum’s second floor, three restrooms — men’s, women’s, and unisex — designed for individual use contain an array of white, hand-carved soaps and embroidered hand towels. The soaps are mundane with simple designs. What the soaps lack in aesthetic value, they more than make up in the questions they pose. Because you are in an art museum, you cannot help but wonder if these utilitarian objects are works of art. If they are art, how should you interact with them?

The first question is answered by the museum label. It provides the typical details you’d expect, including the name of the artist, artwork title, year made and medium. As for the second question, there’s no direction how or if you should use the soaps and towels. However, the causal display of objects with inherent use-value inside a private space baits you to pick up a piece of soap and use it. You’ve got the freedom to interact with and enjoy art, without expectations or watchful eyes of a security guard. As such, visitors have taken the liberty to use the towels, which are tousled on the shelf, and soaps — some of which are broken or misshapen from use.

Matt Nichols, “SomethingDivine,” 2016.

Each of the three restrooms offers a similar setup: a handful of soaps line the sink counter; several more hang from white ropes under a shelf next to the sink with embroidered hand-towels on top. Indeed, blurring the line between art and function is at the heart of this fascinating show. As the artist puts it, “My hope was that the soap would be used and essentially lose its “Art” value/nature as it assumed its utilitarian role.”

Matt Nichols, “SomethingDivine,” 2016.

The designs of the soaps vary. They include “culturally iconic art works, popular tropes [and] personal symbols,” describes Nichols. Many keep with traditional gender stereotypes, which are further emphasized by their respective placement in the restrooms. The women’s restroom includes a piece of soap resembling the Venus of Willendorf, a symbol of fertility, and a tube of lipstick. Identifying the various designs is fun and draws you in initially, but the heightened awareness of the handwashing experience keeps you lingering.

Handwashing is a habitual part of your routine that requires little thought. But not here. You are littered with choices. You decide whether or not to use the liquid soap and paper towels provided by the museum or one or more of Nichols’s soaps and embroidered towels. The options draw attention to this daily ritual. In other words, handwashing becomes a conscious act. This seems to be the point, because now you begin thinking about the larger meaning of this work.

The show’s title, “SomethingDivine,” suggests a religious connotation, since cleansing acts or purification rituals are part of many religions, including Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. The Christian practice of Baptism is an act of purification granting entrance into the Christian Church; it usually involves submersing or pouring water on the person being baptized. “Ideas surrounding ritual, specifically cleansing, and inherent art value were a cornerstone for my point of departure,” the artist says.

Ritualistic practices also apply to art museums. Art historian Carol Duncan explains in her book, “Civilizing Rituals,” how art museums operate as ritual sites: “Like most ritual space, museum space is carefully marked off and culturally designated as reserved for a special quality of attention — in this case, for contemplation and learning.” She adds how museums also have behavioral expectations associated with ritualistic activity — don’t do this, or don’t do that. However, art museum rituals take on a new meaning in this show.

In “SomethingDivine,” it’s up to the visitor to determine how to use the objects and act in the space. For some, the soaps and towels are simply an alternative to the handwashing materials provided by the museum. For others, this exhibition is about the experience the objects evoke. You decide whether to treat the soaps like sculptures, admiring them from afar, or to interact with them like a one-person performance. And so the soaps don’t lose their “Art” value as the artist hoped. Rather they get you thinking about art, rituals and expectations in new ways.

“SomethingDivine” makes you feel uncomfortable at first, mostly because of its unconventional environment. You expect to see art in a gallery, art fair or the living areas of someone’s home. You expect to see art formally displayed, such as a sculpture on a plinth or a painting framed and hung on a wall. Nichols upends traditional art expectations by placing art in an unlikely place: a public museum’s restroom. This jarring environment is useful. It stops you in your tracks and does what art is supposed to do: it engages you and makes you think. It also raises questions without providing answers. Chief among them is the age old question: what is art? It’s up to you to decide.

“SomethingDivine” is on show at the DePaul Art Museum until December 18, 2016.

Programmer and Writer: amymhaddad.com | programmerspyramid.com | @amymhaddad