Every time I visit Boston I am reminded of how many amazing people and resources are concentrated in a relatively small radius. Three days was barely enough to scratch the surface of the numerous artists, incredible collections, and intellectual reservoirs that the city has to offer. While I was in town I had the chance to talk about my perspective on my curatorial work in a public presentation at the Carpenter Center at Harvard, where I was happy to see so many colleagues from institutions such as the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, the MFA Boston, Northeastern, Tufts, and the MIT List Center. I was also able to steal a few quick visits to the ICA Boston’s new Watershed space, as well as the Harvard Art Galleries and the CCVA exhibitions. My visit revolved around the many wonderful conversations with the Artadia awardees, and although such a density of meetings with artists in such a short period feels a bit like speed dating, as a curator—outside of visits to graduate schools or residency programs—I rarely have the opportunity to be introduced to such a diverse range of practitioners in their own studios.
I was keenly aware of that my three-day visit would barely be enough time to do everything on my list. As soon as I disembarked from my plane I headed to Joe Zane’s (Boston 2009) studio in his beautiful home, which he had recently finished renovating. On his dining room table sat three objects for consideration: a bologna sandwich with a bite taken out of it, a couple of well-used number 2 pencils, and a pair of paint-splattered Converse sneakers. I would soon learn that these objects, which all gesture in some way to the symbolic figure of the artist, are in fact all meticulously made by hand (for example, the sandwich and pencils are deceptively heavy because they are molded out of bronze). While Zane is exceptional in his level of craft, his interest in his individual sculptures goes beyond the success of their tromp l’oeil effects, and instead lies within their signification when placed together in the form of an exhibition. This lead to a far-reaching discussion about how value and success is codified and displayed within the art world. These questions are exemplified by some of his previous works in which he looks at how meaning in the art world is also dependent on mediation. This has taken the form of a self-produced Phaidon monograph, an episode of the PBS tv show Art21, and a feature in an issue of the magazine Parkett. At once humorous and critical, it would be easy to mistake these artworks for “the real thing.” Zane concluded our conversation by asking “Is there a difference and should it matter?”
It was appropriate that my visit with Zane ended by looking at books. In my next visit with Raúl Gonzalez (Boston 2009) in his home studio I was immediately energized by his passion for his many projects and the fluidity with which he navigates different modes of artistic production. Much of his work draws on his experience growing up between the border of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. In addition to being a master illustrator, Gonzalez is at heart a storyteller. As a result, he wanted to create a way for Latinx children who were learning to read with their families to see themselves represented in the stories they encountered. This lead him to collaborate with Cathy Camper on their Lowrider series of award-winning children’s books. The stories are visualized through his distinctive ballpoint pen style, which for him underscores that you don’t need fancy materials to be an artist. These same issues are also deeply connected to his fine art practice, even if on the surface they take on a more sinister tone. We sat down together and looked through a selection of incredibly detailed drawings from his Los Nuevos Guerreros series. Loosely based on nineteenth-century woodblock prints by Koniyoshi Utagawa of 101 Samurai, Gonzalez created his own set of imaginative figures for individuals he felt were missing from the representation of the museum where he was working at the time. Each of these portraits has a story that for Gonzalez both humanizes and mythologizes the bloody violence he observed in Juárez. For another body of work he produced a large-scale drawing of a cage that hovers on a field of rust and rose hues. When he initially exhibited the drawing, entitled Gift, it was hard for viewers to believe that it depicts an actual container for humans. Fast forward to 2018 when the unconscionable treatment of children on the U.S. / Mexico border has become a fixture in the news, it is now more than apparent that what many perceived as a fantastical work is all too real.
My final visit for the day brought me to Lucy Kim’s (Boston 2014) studio. Although I was familiar with her as a painter and sculptor, I learned that it was her interest in cameraless photography that first lead her to investigate how to create a direct impression without a mediating device. While in graduate school she embarked on a kind of “touch photography” using tinfoil to make a giant cast of her room. From its earliest days the seriality of the photograph has been likened to the multiples produced through sculptural casts—for instance, Daguerre’s image, Still Life with Plaster Casts (1837). For Kim, a cast becomes a kind of surrogate for the photographic process that allows her to consider representation through physical form. Upon entering her studio I was confronted with a grouping of self-portraits in various states of finish. It was great to encounter them all together as it allowed for a greater understanding of her process. We looked at another series still in production that depicts a grouping of kitchen knives. Like the self-portrait, which is both a classical trope and a probing of the representation of the female body, the knives are at once a grouping of Kim’s husband’s cooking utensils, and symbolic of a greater violence. This doubleness of meaning is also embedded in the experience of viewing her works, which constantly oscillate between three and two dimensional experience as you move in close to see the sculptural materiality and are forced to back away to take in the details of the painterly brushwork as a whole.
My visits continued the following day in Jane Marsching’s (Boston 2007) studio. She told me how in 2003, during a project that she was researching in the North Pole, her work naturally evolved from considering the paranormal to tackling the real and increasingly urgent effects of climate change. Since that time she has bridged art with environmental activism. In one recent project she has been collaborating with scientists to capture the C02 emitted from from the air vents on the rooftops of university buildings to help facilitate the growth of spinach. She humorously observed that these gardens and the social spaces she designs are quite literally powered by “the hot air of academia.” We went over other bodies of work such as Field Station Concordia in which she rebuilt the dimensions of Thoreau’s cabin with found materials and used it as a nature observatory, which later resonated with her admiration for Jane Goodall’s philosophy that “nature comes to me.” We discussed the stakes of craftivism and the plight of the hemlock tree, which has been on a sharp decline and headed towards extinction (she poignantly described her own hemlock in her backyard, which she has helplessly watched as it dies from the inside out). We landed on a recent body of work that revolves around the Eskimo Curlew, which was once one of the most populous birds in North America. Known as a ghost bird, it was thought to have gone extinct in the 1800s when millions were hunted annually, but that has not been definitively proven, and occasional sightings were rumored up until a few decades ago. Although there are no audio recordings of the Curlew’s call, there are vivid written descriptions of their sounds. This prompted Marsching to install a recording studio within her exhibition and invite the public to interpret the sounds of the birds. The resulting recordings remind us of the fragility of our ecosystems, momentarily bringing the birds back to life through an act of collective imagination and participation.
On my last day the clock was ticking with three back-to-back visits before I had to head to the airport. I began the morning at Ria Brodell’s (Boston 2014) studio. We focused our discussion on her ongoing series of drawings entitled Butch Heroes, that evolved out of a self-portrait project in which she imagined what her life would have been like had she been born in another century. This led her to want to learn more about how queer individuals lived in previous times. For almost a decade Brodell has been pouring through history books and archives. She unearthed the stories of people who were assigned a female gender at birth, but were documented as presenting themselves as masculine and pursuing relationships with women at a time when to do so was not only illegal, but often considered sacrilegious. As an homage to these remarkable figures, Brodell embarked on a series of drawings inspired by the holy cards that depict the lives of saints that she knew from her Catholic upbringing. The drawings are meticulously detailed portraits that take over a month for her to create. Each work includes both factual details about how these individuals chose to live their lives as well as their treatment by society and include both the chosen and given names. Brodell told some of these compelling stories such as that of Gregoria Piedra who was known as la Macho in the late 18th century and impishly challenged the strictures of the church in Mexico City. I could have spent the whole day learning about the stories of these figures, which can now thankfully be accessed in her newly released book published by MIT Press.
My next visit was just a few doors down with Mary Ellen Strom (Boston 2007). We dove right in: I learned that her upbringing in Montana had shaped her political outlook and that being a student in Jacques Derrida’s seminar on forgiveness had made a profound impression on her. We discussed her commitment to de-centering the human in humanity and to investigating the liveliness of matter. She underscored that the stakes of her critical practice are rooted in an attempt to interrogate history while proposing speculative futures, and that throughout her work as an artist is a commitment to collaboration and radical pedagogy. Many of these concerns coalesce in her recent project Cherry River, Where the Rivers Mix, which she collaborated on with Crow scholar Shane Doyle. The multimedia event, which revolved around indigenous knowledge and ritual, unfolded in Montana along the Cherry River. Claimed by Lewis and Clark as the East Gallatin River, it is a reminder of how language reasserts the violence perpetrated against native peoples in the name of exploration and resonates with the recent debates about Confederate monuments. The event sought to highlight the need to restore the river’s name to it’s original Crow name, Baáchuuaashe, or Cherry River in English. These concerns were also evident in a provisional installation Strom had assembled in her studio constructed out of stunning videos filmed above the headwaters of Montana, natural materials sourced onsite, and the IPN addresses of the mining and logging industries in the area that are doing irrevocable damage to the local ecology. In addition, I was treated to a private performance that overlaid the visual experiences with a reading by the artist of entries from Thomas Jefferson’s journals cataloging the natural “curiosities” sent to him through Western expeditions, acting as a reminder that these historical infractions continue to do harm to our land and society.
I concluded my trip in the home studio of photographer Vaughn Sills (Boston 2007). As I wound down my time in Boston, it was a pleasure to spend time focusing on three ambitious bodies of work. Sills’s projects often take many years to unfold and are built on the balance between quiet observation and a committed relationship to her subjects. These longterm meditations lend themselves perfectly to the format of the photo book. We began with One Family, in which Sills spent twenty years spending time with and photographing a poor white family from Georgia. Sills wanted to show the profound effects of poverty across generations, something which has recently fueled much of the conversation in our current moment about the source of political division in the U.S. However, rather than a sociological experiment, the project developed out of Sills’s personal relationship with the family she portrayed. Perhaps her sensitive dialogue with her subjects and the reliance on the series over time instead of the individual frame avoids the pitfalls of exploitation so often associated with documentary practices. Working in the South naturally lead her to her next body of work photographing traditional African American gardens and portraits of their creators. These landscapes are designed with spiritual significance that can trace their roots back to African traditions, which have been passed down through generations. Her book, entitled Places for the Spirit, is accompanied by a thoughtful introduction by the writer and critic Hilton Als, who observed that, “Looking at these black and white images sometimes feels like dropping paper flowers in a glass of water and watching them expand. Vaughn Sills’s images make the mind expand like a rose, fragrant with vision…. [Her] humility in the face of the order she finds in these various gardens is touching – and enlightening.” Both of these projects were photographed in black and white, giving them a sense of being out of time. Thus, it was a change of pace to jump into her current body of work, in which Sills shifted to both color and digital. She will soon be exhibiting these photographs, so we spent time looking at the layout for the show and discussing how the individual images construct a larger narrative. After working in the South for many years, she has headed north to Prince Edwards Island in Canada where her mother was born. Although there are hardly any people in this series, the landscapes can be read as a kind of portrait of her mother, who grew up on the island. As her mother aged Sills wanted to document a place and a way of life, the isolated houses and the natural environs that her mother would have experienced as a child. Often photographed in the early hours of the day, which is one of the “magic hours” of photography, when Sills’s mother passed, the project also became a way to hold on to her memories, becoming in a sense “mourning pictures.” The series is called True Poems Flee, taking its name from an Emily Dickinson poem reflecting on the nature of art, which the poet likens to the fleeting observation of a summer sky. Yet bound in this remark is the permanence of the poetic page, and in this respect, the photographic image and the intervention of the artist.
Alex Klein is the Dorothy and Stephen R. Weber (CHE’60) Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions at ICA include Suki Seokyeong Kang: Black Mat Oriole (2018 co-curated with Kate Kraczon); Broadcasting: EAI at ICA (2018) co-organized with Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI); Nathalie Du Pasquier’s first museum survey BIG OBJECTS NOT ALWAYS SILENT (2017) co-organized with the Kunsthalle Vienna; Myths of the Marble (2017) co-organized with the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Norway (HOK) and accompanied by a critical reader published by Sternberg Press; Barbara Kasten: Stages (2015), the first major survey of the artist’s work, and Julia Feyrer and Tamara Henderson: Consider the Belvedere (2015).
She is currently working on a long-term research initiative, I is for Institute, which includes collaborations with RAW Material, Senegal and Kunsthalle Lissabon, Portugal. From 2013 to 2015 she served as an agent in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hillman Photography Initiative where she co-curated the exhibition Antoine Catala: Distant Feel (2015, with Tina Kukielski) and co-edited the publication Shannon Ebner: Auto Body Collision (CMOA, 2015). She has lectured widely and her writing has been published in numerous collections, including Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good (MIT Press, 2016), The Human Snapshot (Sternberg Press/ CCS Bard, 2013), How Soon Is Now? (LUMA, 2012), and the critical volume on photography Words Without Pictures (LACMA/Aperture, 2010), which she also edited.
Before joining the ICA in 2011 she held positions in the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Roski School of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In addition to her curatorial work, she is an exhibiting artist and the co-founder, with designer Mark Owens, of the editorial project and publishing imprint Oslo Editions.