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Art & Dialogue: Boston Curator Summary by Elisabeth Sherman

For Art & Dialogue: Boston, Elisabeth Sherman, Assistant Curator, The Whitney Museum of American Art, traveled to Boston to participate in a panel discussion at MassArt and visit with eight Awardees. As a culmination of her participation in the program, Sherman presented a summary of her experience in the city. 

I left New York for Boston on an Amtrak train at 6pm on November 8th, 2016 and watched the election results roll in as we traveled up the Eastern seaboard. Waking up to the feeling of the world being turned upside down led to a very unusual beginning to my visit. In many ways, the state of shock that the election results threw many of us into deepened my interactions with the artists I met, and often allowed us to bypass the small talk that defines the beginning of a studio visit. I found that many of my conversations became very quickly personal and revealing, as we were all quite raw in those first few days.

After a long, mostly sleepless night, I woke up on Wednesday the 9th wanting to forge ahead with the plans I had set for my free time in Boston, as best as I could. I set out for the MFA, and on the way my taxi driver and I solemnly listened to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. At the museum, I had the pleasure of seeing UH-OH: Frances Stark, 1991-2015 for the second time, as I had first seen it at the Hammer in 2015. I then spent a fair amount of time in Political Intent, the museum’s exhibition from their permanent collection of works dealing with activism and political discourse. While presumably organized during the election season, this timely show became even more poignant and pertinent that morning. It was a necessary reminder of the role art can play in advancing ideals and challenging perceptions.

Later that afternoon, after a visit to the ICA, I made my way to MassArt for an afternoon of short critiques with a few of the students. I had previously known very little about their MFA program and, given that I was visiting with exclusively photography majors, was given an insight into their approach through the first and second year students. My day concluded with a panel I moderated with the artists Claire Beckett, Caleb Cole, and Stephen Tourlentes. We were all brought together to discuss photography and, while we certainly did, like everything else during my trip, our conversation quickly moved to the content of their work. Claire’s portraits of Muslim converts, Stephen’s long exposures of prisons at night, and Caleb’s projects mining strangers’ histories and personal narratives all took on a new urgency as we grappled with the possibilities of what the new administration might mean for the many different citizens involved in each of their projects.

With the exception of a quick detour to take in the fascinating and incredibly timely exhibition of Edgar Arceneaux at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, my next two days were filled with back-to-back studio visits with the Artadia awardees. The work being made by these artists of various generations all across Boston ranged widely, from Xiaowei Chen’s deep commitment to a sustained and durational drawing practice, to Joe Zane’s satirical, multimedia lens on the systems that drive the art world.

Once again, however, wherever and whenever an artist’s work touched on any of the issues that now feel vulnerable during our incoming Presidential administration, my conversations with the artists quickly addressed these topics, while still taking into account their studio-based practices. For example, Raúl Gonzalez and I discussed his stylistic references and how he bridges the comic/graphic novel community and the art world, but then we focused significant time on the Latinx students he works with through his young adult books as well as the issues of immigration and Mexican-American culture addressed in his work. Similarly, Larissa Bates and I spoke about her wide-ranging influences while discussing at length her rediscovery of her Costa Rican heritage in contrast with her New England upbringing.

Visiting with Claire Beckett–which, like my visit with Raúl, took place in their gallery, Carroll and Sons–was a wonderful continuation of the conversation we’d started the night before during the MassArt panel. While quite different in their aesthetic, she and Eric Gottesman both have an approach to portrait and documentary photography that involves the agency of their subjects, who come from communities quite different than their own. They have both spent significant time learning about these groups of people and then, to varying degrees, create their photographs in collaboration with the members of these groups. As with Claire’s work with Muslim converts, Eric’s work has long engaged many issues that have risen to the surface through the Presidential election. Outside of his own solo work, he is a co-founder of the artist-run Super PAC, For Freedoms. We spent the second half of our visit deep in conversation about many of the issues For Freedoms has been tackling head on.

My time in Boston ended on Friday with a visit to Lucy Kim’s studio. Lucy was the one artist I knew in advance and, while we’d had conversations over the last couple of years, I’d never seen her very physical, material work in process, only in exhibition. After so many days of intense, emotional conversations with new friends, it was wonderful to reconnect with someone I already knew and to focus on her labor-intense work, better understanding the methodical way she constructs her optically confusing painting-sculptures.

Image: Claire Beckett, Hans with his teach Lokman Efendi, 2013, archival inkjet photograph, 30 x 40 inches.