In my younger days, between my divorce in 1985 and my return from Baltimore in 2004, I moved many, many a time. Each time I moved, I would cull through the shelves, and drawers and cabinets of my house and get rid of the old band aid papers, and tags and spare thread and extra buttons attached to new clothes, and the disposable cutlery that I got when I ordered out, and all the other crap that accumulated over time. Upon arriving at each new abode, I would take great pleasure in carefully and thoughtfully arranging all my remaining treasures, dishware, clothes, and books, and everything else – towels and washcloths not only folded carefully but placed on equal but separate shelves, the painting my father made of the English huntsmen centered over the front door, the statues of the Virgin Marys, Saints, puppy dogs, birds and Santas arranged in such a way as though engaged in conversation. (Of course anyone that knows me, realizes this initial period of meticulous arrangement is shot to hell after about a week of living in the new house – Santas shun the Virgins, the huntsmen slide off their horses, and the towels engage in intercourse with the washcloths, with the end result an overabundance of useless hand towels.)
After seeing Use Your Illusion, an exhibition curated by Paul Horn at Colton Farb Gallery (July 9 – August 20, 2011) I started thinking about how the process of moving to a new home is very much like the process of curating a show. In both instances it makes sense to cull out that which is trash and extraneous both before and after arriving at the new space; to plan on how many and what kind of objects will reasonably fit into the new environment; and to consider object placement within the allotted space, in terms of practicality and aesthetic.
Of course there are additional decisions that might ensure the success of a curated exhibition but that would not fly in the context of a move. For example, a curator of a show might think it only fair to give each artist an equal amount of wall space, or baring that, display a more or less equal amount of work. It would not fly to apply the same judicious form of partition to each room of a house. You would never say “Since Living Room must have ten pieces of furniture, then Kitchen must have ten pieces as well” for then you might find yourself in the ridiculous predicament of balancing on the top of a chiffarobe while trying to fry eggs.
Which is all a very circuitous way of comparing Use Your Illusion to a not so successful move. (The exhibit features the work of John Bruce Berry, Scott Burns, Dandee Danao, Nicky Davis, “Dual”, Paul Horn, Daniel Johnston, Solomon Kane, Sharon Kopriva, Matt Messinger, Angelbert Metoyer, Kevin Peterson, Kevin Sechelski, Trey Speegle and the unlisted John Paul Hartman.) The show is a jumble of works, a few good, some truly bad, and most in the middling range. Using the analogy of a successful move, I will make suggestions on how this exhibition might have faired better.
When packing for a move, you should first decide which of your objects are indispensable. As for this exhibit, the works that immediately come to mind are Trey Speegle’s You Who, most of Matt Messinger’s pieces, Daniel Johnston’s wonderful drawings and I’ll even concede to admiring Kevin Petersen’s technique, even though his uber realistic style is not my cup of tea. If you were moving, this caliber of work would be analogous to your personal treasures –the wicker couch and rocking chair that belonged to your grandmother, the cabinet your father made, the distressed dresser a friend gave to you, and the refrigerator you actually paid for.
In an ideal situation, you would only have treasures. But since our hypothetical move is a more common and realistic situation, then you need to decide which of your objects are still functional or essential to the comfort of your new home, pack those away and put them in the van. These would be like your bed, you have to have that, your clothes, you can’t run around naked all the time, at least one cup, etc. Shifting to the realm of Use You Illusion, those kind of items would translate to the artworks that, although not perfect, could still make for a somewhat decent show – for example Nicky Davis’ and Dandee Daneo’s paintings, John Paul Hartman’s Mickey Mouse inspired pieces and Scott Burns’s drawings to name a few.
Continuing the analogy of a move, you have now reached the point where its time to start cleaning out drawers and throwing things away. No, you cannot keep those stained, torn and stretched out under panties, the single crust infested socks, that pair of gray sweat pants that make you look like a Beluga Whale, no matter how sad it makes you to throw them away. In the parallel universe of curating, it is now that the Curator must make some very hard decisions – what work does not fit, what work brings the show down?
There are at least two artists I would, without hesitation, either eliminate or severely reduce their holdings from the show – Solomon Kane and “Dual”. Solomon aka Jeff Reese at least tries damnably hard – he’s puts a lot of effort (certainly a lot of paint) into his work, he thinks about social issues in his own sort of misguided way – but, I believe the art world would be better served if Kane’s work were hung in a venue where it more rightfully belongs, such as the kind of furniture store you would go to if you were in the market to reduce your bottom line.
As for “Dual”, I’d not only get rid of his work, I would have never considered it in the first place – first and foremost because it is mind numbingly boring and unoriginal. And I am not railing against “Dual’s” work because I am too old to understand or appreciate the whole wheat paste street art concept thing (which if I were, would make me about 10,001) or because I don’t understand and appreciate appropriation, which I absolutely do and am guilty of myself. What I don’t understand or appreciate is when someone who claims to be an artist is so unmotivated that he doesn’t even attempt to take the ideas he lifted from another and turn them into something that makes them his own, other than marking his territory by putting his name on the piece. “Dual” is no Banksy, he’s not clever or mysterious, he’s just some kid who has silk screened a bunch of Dadaist Madonnas and Victorian optical illusion skulls and pictures of Bert Lahr and the overly, overly, overly used Eye of Conception and then shittily wheat pasted them onto warped boards. My ire is up, because this lack of intellectual curiosity or creative drive reminds me way too much of students who, when asked to write a research paper, are too lazy and entitled to even bother to footnote or even paraphrase the not necessarily accurate information they found at the first site that appeared in their Google Search, and then who take you to the Dean when you give them the grade they deserve, which is a big fat F.
O.k., back to the analogy. Before we start loading the boxes and furniture into the van, let’s measure the new space, so as to gauge how much stuff we can realistically bring along. Then, once we start unpacking, lets not just put the objects in the first room or drawer that presents itself, but rather take the time to rearrange things until we figure out the most practical and visual pleasing way to store and display them. For example, say you have three couches in your old house, but your new house, which is not even a house, but is an apartment, only has room for one. So what do you do? Either sell the extra couches, lend them to friends or put them into storage. Get rid of them – don’t lean them against the wall, or cram them under the bed and certainly don’t ask your friends to step over them when they come to visit. And when you place that solitary couch in the new apartment, make sure it is in a room large enough to accommodate it, so that when you finally do sit down to watch television, you don’t have to hold the t.v. on your lap.
All of which is a round about way of saying, there is too much work in this show, even for a space as large as Colton Farb. With the exception of the main gallery, art is placed everywhere – in narrow cramped hallways (two of Kevin Peterson’s painting); in nooks and crannies (John Bruce Berry); on the floor leaning against the walls (A Matt Messinger painting, a “Dual” wheat paste thing, and a couple of Daniel Johnston collages – which in all fairness, I was told were so placed so to replicate his work environment), This leaning things against the wall business is all very well and good if it looks like it was done that way on purpose and/or if the artwork plays off and interacts with its environment and other objects surrounding it (as in Robert Gober) but when it doesn’t work, it just looks like you ran out of nails.
However, I will say there has been, at least, some effort put toward systematically grouping the artworks in Use Your Illusion according to some kind of ordered aesthetic- i.e. black and white pieces go here, cartoon based imagery goes here, etc. , but there is little evidence of the rearranging and arranging that curators and gallery staff must deal with before achieving a visually harmonious balance – the kind of harmonious balance achieved through the application of – believe it or not- the Principles of Design. I guess somebody was sleeping in class that day.
One final gripe. You want to know what really bothers me? Maybe I am annoyed because I suffer from the overly heightened sense of equity that is forced into a parent’s psyche the minute his or her child develops into a cognizant being –i.e. under no circumstance would you, when presented with two kids and ten cookies, give one kid nine cookies, and the other poor sap one. Don’t let some of your artists show ten million things, and the others only one or two! It just doesn’t make sense. Either give everyone the same amount of wall space or let them show the same number of works. Not only is it the fair thing to do, but it also makes for a more even and better show.
So enough criticism. I an of the eternally hopeful opinion that a curator can take almost any level of artwork (children’s, seniors, monkeys, elephants, emerging and established artists or a mix there of), and through the application of my rules of moving, turn that mix into a relatively decent, cohesive, visually appealing show. So Mr. Horn, the next time you take on the task of curating, which I feel confident that you will again, just pretend you are relocating your belongings to a new house in a new neighborhood on the other side of town.
also by Beth Secor
- Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty at Contemporary Art Museum Houston - June 3rd, 2015
- Perry House at d.m. allison gallery, Houston - May 20th, 2015
- eState Sale - January 24th, 2012
- Beth Secor’s Observations on the Texas Contemporary Art Fair - October 31st, 2011
- The Houston Art Fair - September 18th, 2011