March 15, 2006

Curatorial vs. Theoretical Practice

Increasingly evident in group surveys of visual art are the primary motives of the curatorial staff involved. As “pluralism” in art continues to spread, and previously established, historically positioned forms become entrenched in graduate art programs, the curatorial focus of selecting a group of contemporary artists seems designed to convey credence on the faithful and to redress the rejected. Many issues are at stake, including the careers and agendas of the curators themselves, who wield considerable power within the tightly knit circle of art-world validation. After all, the “survey” provides a regulated and framing context, supported by the art institutions, to disseminate “information” under licensure of “truth.” Curators at this level possess a privileged criticality, as their “choices” will briefly function as a jig for judgment of “acceptable” art forms, to reposition both academics and practitioners accordingly.

But what is “curatorial practice?” In essence, the contemporary curator is ostensibly an academic, studied in the art history and presumably versed in the finer points of art theory. Let us consider this years Whitney Biennial, where apparently the curators have chosen to endorse several major contemporary and “late” modernist movements, i.e., conceptual art, appropriation, minimalism and site-specificity. Albeit, their curatorial initiative and critique has certain intelligence, but the conspicuous “failure to launch” of many ‘06 WB artists provokes the exhibits downward spiral and reveals missed opportunities for advancing the original concepts of those preceding art movements.

A curator’s specific selection of artists would putatively support work that “fits” within genres, movements or theories that the curator knew, or at least believed, was substantive art. In essence, these “choices” are necessitated by the affirmation of personal views, views perhaps developed in academic settings via archival reasoning. Therefore, it would make perfect sense that “proven” art (textbook, collectible, auction-ready) could serve as a template for what would be “proved” to be valid art making now.

Critics have been accusatory:
There are no boundaries left to transgress. Art can't be liminal in the absence of the thresholds. How can you challenge conventions that have already been burned beyond recognition? There's something almost cliched about the use of these cliches. Where have the curators been for the past 20 years?

And occasionally insightful:
The challenge is to make distinctions of value and extract what matters from the rotten, and growing, clot of art-information, that is, to do exactly what sloppy surveys and art fairs do not. Curators should try to find the important shapes and essential lights in our evolving culture. They should even declare what’s good and bad. It doesn’t matter much, in the end, if they’re right. History comes to its own conclusions. But the effort to make judgments of value is bracing to the present.

To take a less combative approach, I suggest a critique that will draw distinctions between “contemporary” work and the work of the originators of conceptual practice. Pervasive in the critique of contemporary art is the specter of historicity, and a rigorous consideration of the current Whitney Biennial ought to entail a reasonable assumption of epistemic “progress.” My alternative proposal to curatorial practice is to use a theoretical practice to determine if the ‘06 WB curators (and artists) were swayed by the metonymic cloak of “post-conceptualism,” or if they have added anything significant to the on-going discourse of conceptualism.

Gedi Sibony uses construction-grade materials, like sheets of plywood and carpet scraps, to create a debris site which one critic tried to analyze, thusly:
Dumpster origins alone do not disqualify the work from serious consideration. Sculpture constructed out of castoffs has been around for decades. Robert Rauschenberg ingeniously transformed the odds and ends he found lying in the street into evocative and whimsical constructions. Richard Tuttle (recently seen in a Whitney retrospective) could make a piece of old wire converse eloquently with its shadow. Sibony's assemblage of refuse, however, remains unredeemed. It's impossible to imagine the curator's internal monologue that culminates in "I must have that in my show!"

In point of fact, we can easily imagine the curators misreading Sibony’s use of "construction" as conceptual "stand-in" for the aesthetics of an installation about the “site.” But is this metonymic use of construction aesthetics enough to grant this artwork “authenticity” as a post-conceptual work? Robert Morris began a 22-day “exhibit” in Leo Castelli’s gallery in 1969, entitled Continuous Project Altered Daily, which used plywood sheeting, lumber, mounds of dirt, various tools and lights, in which he engaged in a “dialogue” with the space itself in an on-going fashion beyond the parameters of the “work” as a finished entity. Photographs of this site documented the actions, as Morris wrought daily changes on the space, eventually piling earth onto the make-shift plywood platforms causing them to sag under the weight. Moreover, this “visual field” by Morris created “a realignment in the relations between work, viewer and space/context which introduced a more playfully libidinous role for the viewer/spectator, further undermined the work’s status as the bearer of aesthetic meaning, and made explicit the legitimating function of the institution.” From Jon Bird's Rewriting Conceptual Art, p. 101.

Does Sibony’s site signify anything other than a superficial reading of site-specific practice? What does it add to the discourse begun by Morris, Bruce Nauman, Barry Le Va and others?



josh said...

Contexts are ultimately individual- personal subjectivity is perhaps the apotheosis of contextuality. It strikes me based on my superficial engagment (I haven't seen the show yet, but have read a number of articles about it, have seen a good number of images [and at least one video] and am familiar with a certain proportion of the artists) that the choices make perfect sense if viewed from a certain perspective. That is only to say that the choices the curators make are inevitably the product of a conceptual framework- and that if we understand that framework we will understand their choices.

I wonder if Chrissie Iles and Phillipe Vergne didn't start working from the perspective that art reflects the times. Then, I expect they continued by assuming the perspectives that this is a dark period in American history and that good or relevant work will reflect and/or critique from this perspective.

This framework of thought would put them in a position of consdering work in a primarily "horizontal" dialogue- across segments of society in the same time frame rather than a "vertical" dialogue through art history. I wonder if Iles and Vergne weren't more concerned with the relevance of the work to Rumsfeld and Enron than to Matta-Clark and Nauman.

josh said...

Kind of amusing- this Biennial so based in social criticism seems to be getting some its own:

seems like the work of the "Yes Men" to me

M. Cameron Boyd said...

I must take issue with your interpretation that “contexts are ultimately individual.” On the contrary, I believe that the idea of a “context” requires a structure, in effect a triangulation of “subject,” “object” and “institution-knowledge field-hierarchy,” which supports the contextual perception. Perhaps you meant that contexts are individually perceived, which your next line of reasoning follows with the idea of "personal subjectivity."

As I said, the ’06 WB curators’ selections fulfill agendas of their own perspective, “necessitated by the affirmation of personal views, views perhaps developed in academic settings.” Indeed, the ‘06 WB proclamations come from an “institutional” and European (read: cultured) perspective, as Chrissie Iles, who works at the Whitney, is British, and Philippe Vergne, who works at the Walker Art Center, is French. Perhaps this explains the abundant “international” presence in their Biennial, exposing a conviction (hope?) that current art-world authority will (once again) revert to a Euro-standard.

josh said...

I do wonder if subjectivity can't be triangulated in space and time and along a psychological continuum- still not sure if this fits your definition. Could you direct me to the source of your definition?

I'm interested in your suggestion that
Vergne and Iles want to see art world authority revert to a Euro standard. Could you expand on what you mean by this- more institutional and less market driven maybe?

Here's Vergne speaking to some of these issues, he indicates that he sees this Biennial effort as subverting American authority:

"I think the 20th century was when America became—it’s totally cliché—the dominant voice in diplomacy, politics, economics, and aesthetics, and I really think... "

continues at:

it does make me wonder if he distinguishes between a European perspective and simply a non-American one. This starts to raise some issues of anti-Americanism in that their (Vergne and Iles European) identity and perspective may exist only in negative relation to America.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

My thoughts on context were, of course, informed by Lacan’s conjecture on the subject’s relationship to objects. My “definition,” although I’m wary of that word, revolves around a further hybridization of semiology (esp. Saussure) and the triangulation of “object-signifier-signified,” where some models have the actual “object” complete the equation. From there, my own bold progression is that "context," being an abstraction, would have to exist outside both subject and object.

I suggest the ’06 WB curators’ “Euro-standard” is based more on market power than institutional power, since American museums out-number their European counter-parts and do better commercially. Their hope for European dominance in the arts is a pure Anglo-centric, anti-global wish rather than an active ploy, at least as far as I know.

Anti-Americanism and negativity about our home-bred artists notwithstanding, I think there are other more serious charges being leveled at the curators:

Philippe Vergne is co-curator of the 2006 Whitney Biennial. His partner, Sylvia Chivaratanond, is Partner and Director at Perry Rubenstein Gallery. Six artists who are represented by or have been in recent exhibitions at Rubenstein were chosen to participate in this year’s Biennial: Matthew Day Jackson and Sturtevant are gallery artists. Jordan Wolfson is represented by (or is at least affiliated) with the gallery though he does not appear on their most current artist list. Jay Heikes, Aaron Young and Carter were included in the group show "Sticks and Stones" in 2005 and may still have inventory at the gallery. Then again, they may not.

The question is: Do Rubenstein and Chivaratanond stand to profit financially from Vergne’s selections? Without a doubt - YES. The prices of all six artists’ work will rise significantly as a result of the exhibition, if they haven’t already. The artists will be asked to participate in exhibitions at other venues, many of them prestigious, from which Perry Rubenstein will garner a percentage (and as a New York gallery, this could be anywhere from 15-35%).

Posted 2/23 on

josh said...

Brief surreptitious tour of Whitney Biennial w/ at least some of Caligula:
(takes a while to load)

IMDB page for 79' Caligula featuring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud among others:

josh said...

To continue the contextuality thread- I really don't buy into the Lacan/Saussure triangulation. Suppose you read a book, see a movie, a painting, etc. and then see it again years later and have an entirely different experience- is this not a product of context? A man gets a phone call that his wife and children have been killed in a car accident. In shock, he steps outside and notices a tree he has never seen before even though he has walked past it a thousand times. Is this not a product of context? A man innocently talking with a young woman makes a gesture or has a mannerism that suddenly reminds the girl of the uncle that molested her and chills are sent down her spine- yet the same signifier would be read entirely differently by
most any one else. I eat a madeliene, Proust eats a madeliene. Are these differences in meaning not the product of context? I think that "institution- knowledge field hierarchy" is only a small part of context, but it is discussed most in art because this is an area that
artists can begin to control for and therefore incorporate into their practice. Isn't post-modern contingency dependent on fractured reality, the lack of a stable, independent relationship between perceiver and perceived? Isn't Barthes idea of the Death of the
Author -works being reborn with each reader- dependent on individual contextuality? Formulation of context is an infinitely complex thing and I don't believe it can be teased out through an equation.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

If we consider the subject dominant in a “triangulation model,” as the exterior world is perceived interiorly, then we cannot confuse “interpretation” for “meaning.” In your examples, each subject’s “interpretation” of the external might be influenced by “projections” of their psychic feelings on to the events and objects of “reality.” This affects the putative “difference” in the contextual experience.

The unstable tendencies that issued from various poststructuralist positions emphasize this fragmentation. The subject became decentred as ideologies and structures were stressed as the “source of meaning.” And even the postmodern theories are in conflict. Barthes prefers the reader to perceive individually, but that suggests a “subjective,” not truly “contextual,” perception. Althusser suggests that the very existence of the subject is only “recognized” through acts of interpellation by the dominant ideology, which would be externally anchored in “context.”

This idea of “context” is "infinitely complex" yet deceptive; it seems based in ideology, distorted by psychology, dependent on social structure, which perhaps explains why it is a fascinating topic for artists.

craig P. Webb said...

Umm - blue is a pretty color