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?
NEXT WEEK: URS FISCHER VS. GORDON MATTA-CLARK