At Aspen Art Museum, artist Jonathan Berger re-imagines the concept of a museum store
Tinkering with a wall display of traditional Japanese fighting kites on a recent afternoon at the Aspen Art Museum, the artist Jonathan Berger struck upon why he wanted to take over the museum’s store for a year and how he felt this unusual art installation/retail shop could meaningfully touch people.
“A lot of what I’m interested in is that a museum is all about not being able to have stuff,” Berger explained. “I want somebody who does not have a lot of money to be able to walk in here and walk away with something that is extraordinarily special. Maybe you get something that costs just a little bit of money, where the currency is magic.”
Berger hunted the world over to make his dream shop, mining deadstock supplies, artist estates, friends’ collections and favored gift shops. As he opened to the public, thousands of items — from oddball knick-knacks to fine art and antiquities — remained piled high in an adjacent gallery that didn’t make it into the opening iteration of the shop, where more than 350 items are now on sale. Known simply as The Store and lit by natural sun and by red-shaded lamps, its walls are painted black, some covered in cork board for displays, with items on shelves, in glass cases and — watch your step — displayed on the floor.
“It will never be ‘done,'” he said of the shop, where in early December Berger worked solo in the shop from about 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. finalizing and curating displays. “I cut a lot, where I was like ‘I love this but it does not belong here.'”
This magic store, obviously, is not your standard museum shop of coffee table books and postcards.
Among the magical items in the new museum shop are handmade three-color silk screens by the influential sculptor, designer and landscape architect Isamu Naguchi. These gems on washing paper are selling for $50 (“I literally cannot believe it,” Berger said of the pieces).
Here you can find new Zardozi valentines from India ($36) and antique novelties like a fake worms and celluloid false teeth from an old trick shop (some free for the taking or for a few dollars). There are traditional Chinese folk toys like small silk cocoon tigers and there are paper crane mobiles from the 1964 World’s Fair ($52), as well as Italian votive objects. There are anonymous modernist sculptures that came from an art dealer in Vermont and 3-inch-tall wooden chair sculptures from 1930s Holland ($760), antique handblown glass eye balls form West Germany ($115) and beautiful oddities like a chain mail oyster shucking glove ($110).
“Half of it is stuff I’d get myself,” Berger said, noting some of the items here are things he’s given as gifts to loved ones from favored New York shops.
Working with Berger was among Aspen Art Museum director Nicola Lees’ first undertakings when she took the helm of the museum in the spring.
She had previously collaborated with him for 2014’s “On Creating Reality, by Andy Kaufman,” Berger’s “experimental biography” of the groundbreaking comedian and performance artist exhibited through Frieze Projects in London.
When Lees came to Aspen, she and Berger began discussing exhibition ideas.
“She is really into thinking about how an institution can have artists permeate and interact with every aspect of what a museum is,” Berger recalled. “So I said, ‘Well, I’ve always wanted to do a store.'”
Lees thrilled to the idea.
“The idea is to make this curatorial project of contemporary objects and strange things and local things,” she said last summer as the store concept was coming together. “So you can start a collection or enjoy browsing.”
Berger’s inspirations were the one-of-a-kind shops of Manhattan that he spent much of his youth in during the 1980s and ’90s – places like Little Rickie’s in the East Village, at which he was the last employee in 1999, and Ting’s in Chinatown where he remains a loyal visitor.
“I grew up around a lot of art and seeing art, but if you asked me to name a piece of art there isn’t anything where I’m like, ‘That changed my life!'” he said with a laugh. “But I could talk to you forever about stores in New York City.”
The shops of his memory are the bizarre passion project spaces of old, when New York’s commercial rents were more affordable and one might be able to make a living by creating a place filled with things one loved and wanted to share.
“You’d go in and there would be someone who was a specialist in this one thing they invented and made a store from, doing what seemed like the only thing they could have done with their life,” Berger recalled fondly. “There isn’t a manual with stores. A store can be anything.”
Museums and galleries, he noted, tend to be the same kinds of white-walled spaces. Anytime something swerves away from the norm, it can only be seen as a comment on the norm. Shops are not freighted with those visitor expectations or with the pressure of feeling like you have to know references and “get” the art.
In a shop, Berger noted, “It’s not about being pretentious, it’s just about looking at stuff.”
He hopes The Store might approximate like the spirit of Little Rickie’s, where the kitsch and pop culture cool seemed to bridge every social chasm. Berger painted this mental picture: “The Hell’s Angels were shopping next to the kids from the projects, net to the ‘king of chintz’ — this guy who was a super high-end interior decorator — and like Julia Roberts would be making out with somebody and a kid is pushing her out of the way to get to the bouncy balls.”
After being a loyal visitor, Berger worked there during a college summer as its owner prepared to close it, breaking down the store and the “layers and layers of shit” collected within its walls across its 15-year run.
The Aspen museum shop will not only honor Little Rickie’s in spirit, but also in one of a series of small archival exhibits, where rotating items will be on view under glass, telling the stories of stores as art spaces. The first, up now, focuses on the vintage clothing shop Rue St. Denis. An exhibit on Little Rickie’s will follow, then one on Ting’s, which is among the last traditional gift shops on Chinatown. Each will include text of an interview Berger did with shopkeepers, ephemera and some items for sale.
Berger’s Aspen store is scheduled to run for a year. He will be back periodically to update the archival exhibit, update inventory and check in.
Finding the many treasures for his shop on a global hunt, Berger said, was a familiar experience from his art practice.
“Everything I do is about digging,” he said, noting how much research and collecting and patience is required for his projects, adding that to pull off the Kaufman show he had to work to create an estate for the comic. “I am used to waiting and I am used to hunting.”
The room The Store fills is in the space on the first floor of the museum formerly used as a classroom and lecture hall (the adjacent space that formerly housed the AAM Shop is now a film screening room, it’s currently showing the Hunter Thompson documentary “Freak Power” on loop). The museum itself is calling The Store an exhibition as well as a “meeting point, archive and place of commerce.”
With magic on sale, Berger believes it has the potential to impact visitors profoundly.
“I hope it can bring people joy,” Berger said. “I do think there is something about when you go into a store and you form a connection with something and you can take it into your life. That has the potential to be profound in a particular way because you live with the thing.”
The Wheeler Opera House and Belly Up Aspen are teaming up to present two shows in December: Big Head Todd and The Monsters on Wednesday, December 27, and Ozomatli on Saturday, December 30.