The first time I set up an aquarium I killed all the fish. I essentially poached them by putting them in the water too soon. The next time I was more patient but again I killed all the fish - this time by cleaning the tank too fastidiously. I killed a lot of fish before I fully understood the interrelated complexities of lighting, tank size, aquarium substrate, pH, and fish compatibility. It took even longer to build an ecosystem that would not just sustain life but would truly facilitate a thriving community.
Art is not static, it is alive. Each piece of art represents myriad emotions, perspectives, political and moral positions, metaphor and narrative, plus hundreds of hours of the artist’s labor and devotion to a vision. Art is a living piece of the artist’s soul. As with all living things, the art’s expression is radically context sensitive. Integrity is maintained within a state of dynamic equilibrium where it will either shine with infused energy or languish in aesthetic mediocrity.
Curating art is a dynamic process in which expressions of artistic talent are harnessed in a organized, stable configuration. Unfortunately, many curators view art as static composition of materials and energy, or as Regina Spektor sings:
First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up
Masterpieces serving maximum sentences
It’s their own fault for being timeless
There’s a price to pay and a consequence
All the galleries, the museums
They will stay there forever and a day
All the rowboats in the oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away…
While education and networks are essential in curatorial practice, it is the (rare) curator who understands how to manage the raw life force of art through the adaptation to changing conditions and feedback loops - to enable a show to excel. This factor elucidates the seeming endless discussions about curating as an art form.
I recently had the good fortune to exhibit a piece (Fuck It All, 2015) in a juried show at the Non-Fiction Gallery in Savannah, Georgia where Alexandra Chamberlain, Exhibitions Director curated: American Vices. Ms. Chamberlain’s keen curatorial skills established a show that went beyond a competent presentation of the art pieces. American Vices created a compelling discussion between the artist and the audience. Even more, it shifted the discussion from a passive understanding of the presented art to active participation within the context.
An engineered resonance was apparent from the start, in the gallery’s call for submissions:
We’re sure you’re a lovely person of many virtues – a person who donates to charity, supports local farming initiatives, works to diminish pollution, and tips generously. But to paraphrase Bertrand Russell: no one is interested in other people’s secret virtues. Whether it’s greed, narcissism, perversion, selfishness, wastefulness, vanity or other bits of wickedness, America is infamous for its vices. American Vices invites you to crawl down into the belly of American immorality and show us what you find.
Entry was inevitable.
American Vices established a context of curiosity and provocation where the artist’s work was able to connect to and move the audience who viewed it. When I asked Alexandra about her curatorial vision she responded: “I've always been interested in pushing the boundaries, and artists who are pushing the boundaries with their work; not just in terms of materials and mediums, but in terms of their content and concepts. A beautiful work of art is not just about the face value and aesthetic imagery presented at the forefront, a beautiful visual experience can be created out of the dark and dirty concepts inherent in our everyday lives.”
This curatorial perspective can be seen in the work I was inspired to submit. Fuck it All is a bold piece that confronts suicide and choice in a direct, unavoidable manner.
Alexandra explained, “For American Vices, we wanted to create a dialogue between ourselves and the artists in which the art work present in the gallery could answer this tumultuous topic, as well as bring to light the difficult or dark side of contemporary American culture through a visual lens.”
The juried exhibition included Exhibitions Director of Non-Fiction Gallery, Alexandra Chamberlain; Executive Director of Art Rise Savannah, Clinton Edminster; and, Editor-in-Chief of Savannah Art Informer, Kayla Goggin.
The response to their aggressive call was “almost 200 amazing submissions, making the jury process both exciting and exceedingly difficult to narrow down. We ended with choosing 40 works of art from 26 artists in order to create an exhibition that truly speaks to all of our American Vices in whatever forms they may come.”
One of the biggest challenges of curating a group show is being able to harmonize many voices to create a single, resonant exhibit. Alexandra put it this way, “I try to understand as much as possible not just the medium and visual appearance of a work, but the story and reasoning behind each work's creation in order to juxtapose works with one another that essentially create a conversation between them. It is never simply the visitors in the gallery doing all the talking during an exhibition; it is the works themselves that start to speak to one another in a carefully curated space.”
So a good curator is able to align with the artist perspective; but the curator must also understand their audience. Ms Chamberlain elaborated: “I'm not interested in curating a space or exhibition that doesn't allow for the visitor's own interpretation and conversation to be included in the creation of it. I want a response from the visitor, whether good or bad. I want a response, a dialogue.”
It was a great pleasure to be a participant in American Vices. Alexandra Chamberlain, Clinton Edminster, and Kayla Goggin are nurturing a cutting edge and sophisticated climate for contemporary art in Savannah, a dynamic vision that is all too often lacking in gallery exhibitions. The Savannah art scene is very fortunate to have their progressive talents.
As Alexandra summed up, “Great curating allows for the creation of new dialogue, discussion, possible argumentation, and definitely the development of forward momentum.”