When Sandy Goldberg, a 36-year old artist living in Cambridge, MA, walked past a “collectibles” shop that was hawking patriotic blue and-white commemorative ware—plates depicting famous American naval battles, 9th-century political campaigns, neoclassical university buildings, etcetera—a lightbulb went on in her head.
“It struck me how disconnected I felt from these events and objects,” she explains. “They felt sterile and alienating to me, and also silly and funny, like William Howard Taft’s portrait on a teacup. I started to think about what I would put on a commemorative plate: The night my husband and I both got food poisoning after Chinese dim sum and the two of us vied for prime space at the toilet all night—now that was something worth commemorating.”
After researching the history of commemorative ware at old shipping museums and reading through texts like American Patriotic and Political China and Soviet Porcelains, Goldberg began her own series of plates, using her life as subject matter. Her conceptual goal was to comment upon the cult of personality that surrounds many artists, as well as to challenge our culture’s notion of what is serious and what is prosaic. Plus, what belongs on a dinner plate, anyway?
Goldberg’s work uses the formal design elements of the genre, such as elaborate decorative borders, blue and white, and the dating of all events, so that the casual viewer only slowly catches on to the heresy. Here is a sampling of her oeuvre. with annotations by the artist;
Comfortable Bra. I based this design on a J.F.K. plate, because when I got my first comfortable bra, after years of complaining about bad bras, it seemed like a great triumph. I was hearing this fanfare like “Stars and Stripes Forever” in the background, and I felt like I was looking up to a great leader, except it was a bra. Actually, my husband bought me this bra for Valentine’s Day and it was this underwire thing, the kind of bra that other women wear. I had never checked out this underwire world; anything with the word wire, forget it, it wouldn’t work on my body. But this bra opened my eyes, it was a whole different approach to bra-ness, it was like Jewish breasts. It was a turning point in my life.
Pregnancy Test. This is an important moment for any woman who goes through it. In the space of a few minutes, life gets very intense, your whole world changes. I don’t show the results of the test here, because the test is the focus, not the results. The results are too pat—I wanted to commemorate the ambiguity and the anxiety. In the center of this plate is my urine sample with an actual date on it. I based this design on 19th-century naval victory plates—a sort of “liquid” motif. The pregnancy test felt to me like a battle— regardless of the results you desire, there are two opposing sides: yes/no, win/lose.
Working With Macho Assholes. l worked on an art project at a museum in Boston with these guys, and they were like bucks, fighting over territory all day long. It was worth commemorating! This design shows a buck from behind with these ridiculously exaggerated antlers. The plate’s scalloped decorative border presents a feminine contrast. I want my plates to look “correct,” so that if somebody puts them in their collection of “real” blue-and white ware, they won’t stand out. That way I surprise people, and they have to deal with it.
An American Jewish Christmas. I know of no other plate in the world that commemorates a non-holiday. This is my answer to those annual Christmas plates that people collect. In the center is a paper take-out Chinese food carton surrounded by a full movie theater showing two classic 1950’s film scenes—a “car scene” and a “kissing scene.” The border is Jewish stars and little movie house curtains.
Great Sex. This plate is based on traditional election campaign ware that shows two running mates in scenes from their lives. Here I replace the election with sex. I show two pairs of naked legs, one pair with socks on. I did the socks just to make the plate stupider.
Being the Boss. This design derives from an early American type of portraiture. I became the boss of this project and it brought up a lot of mixed emotions for me—being the one giving the orders, wanting people to work harder. I associated that role with someone else, and it was really complicated to have that person be me. I took the role to the extreme and painted myself in this Presidential portrait.
Getting a Grant. I got this art grant to make these plates and I was so overjoyed that I decided to commemorate it with a plate. The center image is a suit of armor, because you feel so armed and powerful when you get a grant. The annunciation angels, the ones who told Mary she would bear a child, are anointing me and announcing the triumphal event.