THEMATIC: Symbols and Systems

"Drawings," 1988/92-93. Graphite pencil on museum board, each unique, dimensions variable. Installation view at Centre d'Art Contemporain, Geneva. © Allan McCollum. Courtesy the artist.

For centuries, artists have used symbolism to represent various universal concepts, including ideas about groups or communities of people. Allan McCollum creates drawings and sculptures that serve a symbolic purpose. In his Art21 segment, he discusses the idea of making "a symbolic system for everybody in the world." The artist makes thousands of small-scale works of art that have an obvious relationship to each other, yet reflect subtle differences. View McCollum's segment and discuss how he employs systems in order to create symbols for both entire communities and individuals within those communities.

Compare the way Allan McCollum utilizes symbolic systems to approaches by other artists, including: Julie Mehretu, Matthew Ritchie, and Mark Bradford.

SEGMENT: Allan McCollum in "Systems"

Before Viewing
Describe the tradition of heraldry. How do symbolic systems like heraldry categorize or represent groups of people? What are some contemporary symbols used to define or describe groups?

While Viewing
Before McCollum creates a work, he asks himself whether it makes a good story. Take note of the different stories McCollum is trying to tell, and then compare notes with your classmates.

After Viewing
How is McCollum's collaboration with fabricators similar to and different from forms of collaboration used by other artists today and historically?

"Whenever I design a project, it's in my head while I'm designing it that I would be able to show someone else how to do it," states artist Allan McCollum.

Create a set of instructions for a work of art, and ask three different people to carry them out. Compare the results, and discuss how and why the interpretation of the instructions varied.