Working in her Oakland studio, Lisa Rybovich Crallé was surrounded by teetering stacks of white rings looking like oversize life preservers. The rings, constructed of fabric- covered polyethylene foam, spilled into the courtyard of the former Halloween mask and hat factory turned art studios.
These rings, 500 of them, will be linked to form a 1,500-foot-long sculpture that will hang from the canopy of the UC Davis Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art for its grand opening. Adorned with 200 gold-painted “charms,” the soft chain sculpture will replace the traditional ribbon associated with new building dedications.
“I'm thinking of the project as a gigantic charm bracelet for the building to wear,” said Crallé, who earned a master of fine arts degree from the UC Davis Department of Art and Art History in 2011.
A community experience
Since spring, Crallé and several assistants have been constructing the rings, loading them into a trailer and driving them to public workshops around the region where community members painted them. About 500 people have picked up brushes to color the rings with purple, yellow, green and blue designs.
“The ribbon-cutting ceremony seemed like a great opportunity to create something big, fun and eye-catching for the Shrem’s grand opening while also getting the community involved,” Crallé said. “Having the public paint the individual foam links literally links the museum with the community. Each link is unique, and together they make a powerful impression. Some of the workshop participants hadn’t made art since they were kids, and they are excited to come see their work on display at the museum. I hope this hands-on experience gives them a deeper appreciation for the art on display inside.”
Making big colorful chains is hardly the only thing Crallé does, although it is connected to her other large-scale sculptures that sometimes resemble jewelry for giants.
Over the summer, her solo exhibition “Bangles” at the Verge Center for the Arts in Sacramento filled the gallery with elongated looping forms of denim, pleather and synthetic hair. That exhibition, and three others, was a collaboration among UC Davis MFA alumni, Verge and the Manetti Shrem Museum leading up to the museum opening.
“I'm interested in transposing the idea of the ‘figure’ onto the architecture or environment that surrounds us,” Crallé explains. “The ‘Bangles’ show at Verge was an attempt to complicate the boundaries between figuration and abstraction. It was also my attempt to create ‘architectural jewelry’ for the space — treating the gallery as a body to be adorned. This Shrem project comes from a very similar impulse.”
Objects telling stories
Crallé grew up in South Florida where she was involved backstage at a local theatre, building props, sets and costumes. “Much of what I do is rooted in the language of the theatre and set design, using objects to tell a story,” she said.
She attended Sarah Lawrence College from 2001–2003 and in lieu of study abroad attended the San Francisco Art Institute during her junior year. She fell in love with the Bay Area and after graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 2004, she moved back. She continued making art while freelancing as a prop and wardrobe stylist. Working as a prop stylist deepened her interest in theatre, display and material culture, and although she had trained primarily as a painter, she began working three-dimensionally.
“The shift to sculpture opened up a whole new vocabulary and set of concerns in my work,” Crallé said. To continue exploring those concerns, she needed the time and space to do it and began applying to MFA programs at research universities.
“I wanted to see what I could accomplish if I locked myself in a studio for two years,” Crallé said. “I knew a little bit about the history of UC Davis’ art department, and when I came for a visit I felt an immediate connection. The studios were gigantic and I appreciated the openness for experimentation and interdisciplinary work. The community was tight-knit, intelligent and driven — exactly the experience I was looking for.”
Developing career, adding performance
Her first big break after completing her MFA was a 2014 exhibition at di Rosa in Napa, which has a large collection of Bay Area art, including a great deal by artists who taught at UC Davis including Robert Arneson, Roy de Forest and William Wiley. “That exhibition really opened the door for other projects,” she said.
Since then she has presented her work at venues including Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, ProArts in Oakland, Field Projects in New York City, Weekend in Los Angeles and the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. She is the recipient of the Robert Arneson Award at UC Davis and has held numerous international residencies.
During the past few years, Crallé has also brought performers into her art practice, collaborating regularly with choreographer Sophia Wang under the moniker “Manners.” She and Wang also organize Heavy Breathing, a series they’ve described as “critical theory seminars in the form of absurd, artist-led conceptual fitness experiences.” Along with being held in art venues, the sessions have also taken place at Golden Gate Park and in a YMCA swimming pool. The series received a significant write-up in The New Yorker magazine in 2015 and is continuing.
Crallé’s interest in participation and viewer engagement extends to the massive “ribbon” project for the Manetti Shrem Museum.
“It is really gratifying to know that so many people have had a hand in making this project happen,” she said. “Viewing the ribbon in its entirety is one thing — and it is stunning — but getting up close you notice the different marks, the different sensibilities, the different styles. The piece comes alive when you realize how many people have made their mark on it.”
— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science