WHOLE LOT OF HISTORY: With local artists, Tannenbaum conceived the idea of displaying a decade’s worth of posters documenting the Providence look.
Although “Wunderground: Providence, 1995 to the Present,” an exhibition that opened last weekend at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, covers a brief period of time, it also represents a dramatically compressed cycle of change in the life of the city.
Eleven years ago, the availability of cheap mill space enabled a youthful cast of anti-materialistic artists to create Fort Thunder, their own wildly fertile alternative to mainstream consumer culture. Yet within just a few years, amid growing national hype about the so-called Providence Renaissance, the low-rent accessibility that helped fuel this influential scene was rapidly disappearing.
When an out-of-town developer planned a bland suburban-style strip mall on the site encompassing Fort Thunder, the ensuing battle highlighted sharply divergent visions of Providence’s future. Despite broad opposition, the shopping complex came to fruition, initiating a wave of new development extending from the rear of the Providence Place Mall to Olneyville Square. And though the battle served as a distinct wake-up call, Providence still struggles to find a way to ensure a place for the underground artists who have lent the city creative caché far and wide, particularly through noise music, screen-printing, and comics. This scene continues, though, thanks in part to the devotion of its members to their adopted city.
In this respect, “Wunderground” looks at both past and present. One element of the show presents more than 2000 posters promoting subterranean art and music events. The other part, a towering sculptural village created by eight artists representative of the Providence underground, is titled Shangri-la-la-land. The title, chosen by the participants, suggests the kind of utopian ideals associated with art collectives like Fort Thunder, as well as the uncertain tenor of the current moment. One piece, Brian Chippendale’s wheeled Home On the Run, seems a riff on how he’s repeatedly been displaced by development.
The Phoenix (the media sponsor for “Wunderground”) recently sat down to discuss the show with Judith Tannenbaum, the RISD Museum’s Richard Brown Baker curator of contemporary art.
Tell me about why RISD decided to take on this show.
WALL TO WALL: Alex Barton helps put the finishing touches on part of “Wunderground.”
I was aware of a number of artists who live here, whose contribution is known outside of the region — and it’s known within a certain part of the community here — but it’s still not really visible or available to a lot of people who go to museums or like to see art. One of the reasons why I was interested in organizing the exhibition was to make that work more available, and a lot of the artists did train at RISD, so there is a particular connection to the school in that way.
What do you find most distinctive about the art and music highlighted by this show?
Perhaps it’s the overlap between the art and the music. The posters were done to publicize, to let people know that music events were happening in the community. I think the style of the posters developed over a period of time, in the same way that the music did.