Made between 1735 and 2021, these works ask us to consider how disability and illness are embodied and experienced, and how they have been represented by artists and deployed as visual tropes. These works foreground the ways that culture and art are shaped by physical, mental, and sensory differences that exist on the continuum of human variation. From moralizing, stereotypical historical representations of disability to more prideful modern and contemporary works, this exhibition highlights how disability is made, unmade, and remade towards new ends.
While not the only way to consider to this subject, Variance understands disability through the social model of disability, an approach first developed in the UK in the 1960s. In this framing, disability is not centered on defect and cure. Rather, disability is a social phenomenon in which people with some forms of difference experience oppression, stigmatization, or failure to be accommodated within the larger cultural sphere, while others are given priority. In this spirit, Variance aspires to help reveal what might be gained by welcoming a broader range of difference.
Not all these works are made by artists who identify as having a disability or illness. Sometimes the disability or illness is visible within the work itself, and other times it was part of the making or the artist’s life narrative. Variance invites you to consider what is gained, generated, or open to imagination by embracing disability as a critical framework through which to experience the world. We are, after all, incredibly varied in normative and sometimes extraordinary ways.
Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
and former Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow
RISD Museum is supported by a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, through an appropriation by the Rhode Island General Assembly and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and with the generous partnership of the Rhode Island School of Design, its Board of Trustees, and Museum Governors.
Variance: Making, Unmaking, and Remaking Disability is also made possible by the Mellon Foundation.
While this is the first time a RISD Museum curator has organized an exhibition around the theme of disability and illness, the museum has collaborated with Arts Equity, through programming and teaching from the collection, for more than 30 years. We would also like to acknowledge other arts-centric disability organizations doing important work across Rhode Island either publicly, privately, or in combination. While not a complete list, some of these organizations include:
Arts Equity (previously Very Special Arts [VSA] Rhode Island) Cove Artist Collective Edge and End Flying Shuttles
HeARTspot Art Center Little Clay Studio Looking Upwards Downtown Designs Oasis Center Out of the Box Studio &
Gallery Outsider Collective Top Drawer TSETSE Initiative United Cerebral Palsy [UCP] Adaptive Arts Program
For a complete checklist, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Projects & Publications
Curatorial intern Grace Xiao reflects on viewing artwork that embraces instability, disruption, and restlessness, making room for open interpretations in the gallery.
How do we describe images and the experience of looking at images? Student Grace Xiao reflects on the process of writing alt text for "Variance: Making, Unmaking, and Remaking Disability."