'Clayton Days' re-imagines turn-of-century life

Kurt Shaw
| Monday, July 22, 2013, 10:12 a.m.

Ever since it opened as a house museum in 1990, Clayton, the turn-of-the century home of Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his family, and the museum and grounds surrounding it, have offered visitors an ephemeral dreamscape in which to imagine themselves immersed in a rags-to-riches story.

So alluring, the Frick family story, and particularly their life at Clayton, became the leitmotif behind “Clayton Days,” a series of 65 photographs Brazilian photographer Vik Muniz completed while he was artist-in-residence at the Frick Art & Historical Center from 1999 to 2000.

That story has proved alluring yet again, as 13 years later, the Frick Art Museum has remounted Muniz's photographs in the exhibit “Clayton Days Revisited” to coincide with a regional focus on contemporary art during the upcoming Carnegie International.

Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art Museum, says that when Muniz initially undertook the project, he decided to frame it “through the eyes of a child.”

To that end, Muniz used a 19th-century 8-inch by 10-inch-view camera to record a fictional narrative from a deliberately low point of view that immerses the viewer in the perspective of a child. The result is a series of ominous and intriguing images that approach history in an imaginative, non-linear fashion, in which some pictures were staged and others were re-photographed from original images in the Frick archives.

For the staged photos, Muniz asked several staff members, as well as some of their family members, to pose in period dress.

Sherrie Flick, who was associate curator of education at the Frick at the time of Muniz's residency, was the model for “The Potato Peeler.”

“Vik was a wonderful artist to work with. Creative and vibrant and fun and smart,” Flick says. “It was fascinating watching him bring the whole ‘Clayton Days' project to life.”

Flick says “The Potato Peeler” came early in the project, before the whole concept had fully formed as a storybook that would involve both fake and re-created historic images with staff members dressed up in the shots.

“I had been working at my desk in the education department when Vik called me over to Clayton,” Flick says. “He wondered if I could take off my glasses and put on these clothes?”

Flick says Muniz's Brazilian accent and easy smile always made these requests seem like no big deal. “I thought I was maybe sitting in for someone who would eventually sit in the chair in the kitchen clutching a potato peeler and some fake plastic potatoes,” she says.

“I put on the clothes — a white polyester top and black skirt and apron. Sat in the chair. I had a lot to do, figured we'd be done in about five minutes,” she says. “I sat there and sat there and sat there. Vik kept checking his light meter and, from my point of view, fiddling with knobs and other aspects of his big, boxy camera. He kept saying, ‘Just a second. Let me just check this.'

“I sat there for a very very long time,” she says.

Eventually, he took the photo with a soft click.

“Later, he told me he wasn't checking the light or adjusting anything on the camera, he was waiting for a small furrow of frustration to form on my brow,” Flick says. “Since I'm a pretty patient person, this took an extraordinarily long time. But in the photo you can see that frustration kind of translates to annoyance and a long workday of a housemaid.

“Working with Vik was like this,” Flick says. “You didn't always know what he was doing. He didn't like to show his cards, but the more we worked together staging the larger project, the more I learned to trust him and his requests.”

Hall says Muniz has a “photographic memory,” and that he based the “The Potato Peeler” on Vermeer's “The Milkmaid” (sometimes called “The Kitchen Maid”). The title also associates it with later Dutch works by Vinvent van Gogh — who painted both “The Potato Peeler” and “The Potato Eaters.”

“It's like he has this personal archive of art history in his head that he can just draw from at will. He's totally fluent in visual languages,” Hall says.

Since working with the Frick, Muniz has received international acclaim, and, thus, in addition to the Clayton Days prints, a selection of more recent work by Muniz is on display. They include the six-work “Pictures of Garbage” series (2008-11), which documented his work with garbage pickers or catadores in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, as well as examples from 2011's “Pictures of Magazines” series — “The Floor Scrapers,” after the 1875 painting by Gustave Caillebotte, and “Wheatfield With Cypresses,” after van Gogh's 1889 canvas.

Looking back on the “Clayton Days” project, Flick says, “It was such a fun project. Seeing it hung again has brought back so many fond memories for everyone who was involved in the project all those years ago.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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