May 15, 2007

Curatorial Practice, Pt. 3

Two contemporary art exhibitions in Washington, D.C. might provoke our further consideration of the implications of curatorial practice, particularly if undertaken by artists themselves. Generally speaking, contemporary art’s curatorial efforts are, for the most part, initiated by persons trained in either institutional settings or from the “vantage point” of art history. However, these recent exhibits were mounted by artists who define themselves by their art practice, rather than as curators, and this “difference” appears to project an “insider’s” point of view concerning contemporary art.

In the case of Supple, the show itself consisted of “abstract” work of varying degrees of effectiveness from (for the most part) proven entities, i.e., established artists with commercial gallery representation. Concomitant discourse that has issued concerning Supple mostly neglects the “objects” in favor of either lampooning or publicizing a controversial “live installation” by a young artist. This discursive tact has catapulted Supple’s curator, J.T. Kirkland, into the (possibly) unforeseen position of defender of both his show and the galvanizing act of said young artist. It is this (probably) unfortunate casting of Kirkland (also an artist) as a protector of contemporary art’s meaning that concerns me here.

As valorization, curatorial practice has definite power within the contemporary art world, and practicing as an artist and curator implies a certain “knowledge” of art and a desire to affect the history of art, if however humbly. A curator must also be prepared to tackle the hard questions that will come from the public sphere, like “what is the meaning?” and “why these artists?” I sympathize with Kirkland having to endure such inquisitions as, “How does your [curatorial] practice engage with your audience? How did your curatorial voice speak in the larger context as it moved out into the world?”, especially if he did not realize that these inquiries would become part of his curatorial burden. And this is my point: those who undertake curatorial efforts will undoubtedly assume multiple roles of art critic, historian and cultural producer. As such, Supple is doubly enlightening to artists thinking about “organizing” shows, as this ongoing and contentious discourse reveals the actual, day-to-day grind that curators go through after putting on such challenging shows.

The other exhibition I wish to discuss is even more revealing in its problematic relationship to the duality of the artist-curator role. As printed in press materials that accompany the Ian and Jan: The Washington Body School show, contemporary artists Jeffry Cudlin and Meg Mitchell create an “alternative history” about two imaginary Washingtonian artists from the 1970’s. The exhibit functions as a kind of parallel universe of “vintage” photography and video of the fictional duo, along with a (concocted) documentary that seemingly “validates” Ian and Jan’s position within art history as under-recognized, “major” artists who “have been expunged from art history.”(1) The show is mostly conceptual in that it “constructs” two cleverly episodic lives that apparently existed under the radar of (New York City) 1970’s art world cognoscenti.

Rex Weil, who contributes his significant theoretical acumen to Ian and Jan, perhaps frames the “real meaning” behind the show when he rhetorically asks, “How does the grand narrative of art history seek to weave art and context in some useful, rational way?”(2) This allows me to introduce (again) the idea of “meaning” as established through the historic “narrative,” a futile and embattled effort at recording “genuine” knowledge. If one’s cultural position (now) conveys epistemic knowledge that might (theoretically) be used to unravel and re-write the past in new ways, then who else but contemporary artists would be better suited to assess the fragility of the “written” past in relation to its significance for today? Yet this exposes curatorial practice (again) as a journey fraught with responsibility and consequence. For example, does the application of an ironic but “false” art history engage humor at the risk of curatorial credibility? If we “construct” fictive beings (and grant them belated validation) are we wrestling helplessly with metaphysics?

George Kubler proposed that history ought to “do justice both to meaning and being, both to the plan and to the fullness of existence, both to the scheme and to the thing.”(3) As a fully engaged conceptual scheme, the fictional artworks of Ian & Jan toy with existence cleverly, and the “grand narrative” is indicted as a suspect ontological position. For to “neglect either meaning or being, either essence or existence, deforms our comprehension of both.”

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1. Weil, Rex. Excerpted from publicity materials for Ian and Jan: The Washington Body School, © Copyright 2007.

2. Ibid.

3. Kubler, George. The Shape of Time, Yale University Press, 1962, p. 126.

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