Connected \\ July 10, 2019

Stencils, spray paint, wall-to-wall

The decorative arts is a global visual language and nonlinear in the sense that it’s not being refined to a singular end point. It’s open to a diversity of voices and is still evolving today. While some visual motifs repeat throughout history, innovation occurs through each new interpretation. I’m incredibly excited to present my interpretation — Taking Place — a 2,700-square-foot painting installation created exclusively for PEM which spans the newly renovated Copeland and Crosby-Forbes galleries.

As the artist behind the work, I’ve been invited to share with readers some insight into the project and my art making practice. Walk into the gallery and you’ll discover oversized wedding dresses, chairs, deer, flowers on the wall — all at once looking like graffiti but also delicate and ethereal and finely rendered.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


Taking Place is an autonomous imaginary realm, a painted environment and an open invitation to the viewer. A site for sociability and community. A place to observe and connect. Experiences that slow down our perception of time. As the viewer moves through the galleries they will see visual references to the Copeland gardens, the East Asian Export collection, an intimate drawing room and numerous beloved PEM objects. Depending on the viewer’s location there are multiple compositions that emerge and allow for reflection on our relationship with material culture.

The imagery for the work is informed by PEM’s distinguished collections and it was an experience of a lifetime working with the dynamic curatorial team, studying the objects up close, walking through the historic homes and exploring many works that have never been on view. Cross-cultural relationships and compelling visual connections were discovered, leading to a composition that spans across the collections, including American Decorative Arts, Asian Export Art, Oceanic Art and Culture, Native American, Maritime, Fashion and Textiles and Korean Art.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


The repetition of the oval shapes found within PEM’s American Decorative Arts collection range from formal to more organic and are representative of a history of cultural exchange. The half oval shape can be found in the transom above front doors of historic homes in Salem, within the fireplace mantles carved by Samuel McIntire and even the composition of sea shells used to make an object in PEM’s collection, “Island Bride” by artist Brian White. A similar but more organic curvature can be discovered in the cloud form found throughout the Asian collection. These curvilinear shapes, often derived from nature are also found in the abstract lines of wood grain, within the shape of a leaf and even the petal of a flower.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


The decorative arts are the oldest new art there is! I’m deeply interested in how material culture shapes personal identities, reinforces or challenges cultural hierarchies and connects people across time and space. My process involves an in depth investigation into imagery from the history of the decorative art and then applying existing methodologies of my contemporary art practice. By working through found formal narratives, there is a search for context and connections; time itself is revealed and often experienced as the subject matter.

Through my own rigorous process and deep fascination with hand crafted details, I hope to honor the tremendous labor that went into making the original historic objects. The creation of Taking Place includes 210 hand drawn and hand cut stencils over the course of 6 months in my studio in Savannah, Georgia. PEM’s galleries then became my studio for two weeks while I made the painting installation on site in Salem. All of the stencils have been acquired by PEM for their permanent collection and will not be used again in my future projects, making Taking Place one of a kind!


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


Stencils and spray paint are often associated with street art, production and craft and often test the linguistic limit and currency of contemporary painting. However, the comfort and beauty of the decorative arts and the historic use of stencils has its own kind of artistic meaning that is exciting to me. During the installation process I’m able to create large-scale paintings quickly. It’s painting at the speed of air!

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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


Decoration, its history and function are reinterpreted through the practice of scaling up the work to engage with PEM’s architecture and specific location. Taking Place is intended to create an all-encompassing experience from every angle. Viewpoints from the new atrium and expansion were taken into consideration to ensure that the perception of the space itself is fluid as the viewer moves through the installation. Ultimately, the work is completed by the presence of the viewer, their experience and memory.

This project involved numerous collaborators, from an extensive dialogue with Associate Curator Lydia Gordon, PEM’s curatorial team and multiple studio assistants. The outcome of this collaborative process is a project that is an open-ended experiment which amplifies the museum’s function as a cultural laboratory and a site and facilitator for contemporary expression.


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer


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© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer


Vanessa Platacis lives and works on a sustainable island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. Her practice incorporates wallpainting, a stenciling process and installation strategies to produce meditations on time and material culture as well as the themes of historical memory and everyday experiences. She is deeply interested in how material culture shapes personal identities and reinforces or challenges cultural hierarchies.

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A new PEM is launching this September -- a new wing, new installations and a whole new museum experience. PEM Members get to see it all first. Join or renew on our Membership page to ensure you don't miss out! Follow along and share in the excitement using #newPEM.

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