CULT OF THE CU­RA­TOR

Artist Profile - - CONTENTS - by Ash­ley Craw­ford

THE CU­RA­TO­RIAL TAC­TICS ON DIS­PLAY AT THE Australian Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art’s 2016 sur­vey ex­hi­bi­tion Paint­ing, More Paint­ing man­aged to draw a gen­eral fo­cus, iron­i­cally, more on cu­rat­ing than paint­ing. There were a num­ber of rea­sons for this and none of them boded well for those who spe­cialise in con­tem­po­rary cu­ra­to­rial prac­tice. The very struc­ture of the show sug­gested that paint­ing per se was de­cid­edly sec­ondary to the im­posed cu­ra­to­rial de­sign and struc­ture. This sim­ple fact, as ob­vi­ous as it was, was made more overt by the de­nial im­plicit in the state­ment made by co-cu­ra­tor An­nika Kris­tensen when she told Art­sHub that “we didn’t want to have any more cu­ra­to­rial con­trol than the se­lec­tion process”. Kris­tensen’s com­ment was in the con­text of the de­ci­sion to hang the se­lected paint­ings in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der, an el­e­ment of cu­ra­to­rial con­trol that sug­gested a cool in­dif­fer­ence to the ac­tual aes­thet­ics con­tained in in­di­vid­ual works. A sim­i­lar lack of aes­thetic sen­si­tiv­ity was seen in the tac­tic of com­mis­sion­ing Sam Son­gailo to paint a mas­sive grid as a “back­drop” to the works in the main room, mak­ing the smaller paint­ings seem like af­ter­thoughts. Those who es­caped the grid were given wee sur­vey shows in the other rooms, thus clearly get­ting dra­mat­i­cally pref­er­en­tial treat­ment. “Cu­ra­to­rial con­trol” was the sheer op­po­site of Kris­tensen’s state­ment; this was “cu­rat­ing” in ex­tremis. There are a num­ber of dif­fer­ing as­pects to what is known as cu­ra­to­rial prac­tice. Some are highly specialised and in­valu­able such as the cus­to­di­an­ship of spe­cific creative niches. Cu­ra­tors of In­dige­nous art, as but one ex­am­ple, need to learn many ar­cane se­crets that would be be­wil­der­ing to the av­er­age pun­dit. Cu­rat­ing mas­sive sur­vey and ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tions re­quires an al­most ob­scenely de­tailed knowl­edge of an artist’s ca­reer and life story in a way that is not dis­sim­i­lar to writing a mono­graph. But when it comes to cu­rat­ing group shows of con­tem­po­rary art some­thing seems to have gone se­ri­ously awry. To­day uni­ver­si­ties run full-blown aca­demic cour­ses in how one cu­rates an ex­hi­bi­tion. Prior to this, cu­rat­ing con­tem­po­rary art was a far more in­stinc­tual ac­tiv­ity. One of­ten knew the art­work via vis­its to the artists’ stu­dios and ideas were of­ten hatched via wine-fu­elled dis­cus­sions about in­flu­ences and in­spi­ra­tions. This could, of course, back­fire. Back in 1986 I cu­rated a small show called Falls the Shadow which fea­tured Tony Clark, Lindy Lee, Ge­off Lowe and John Young. It was in­spired by our con­ver­sa­tions about a cer­tain re­turn to no­tions of the “ro­man­tic” in con­tem­po­rary art at the time, a shift away from the cool post­mod­ern rhetoric of ap­pro­pri­a­tion. Aes­thet­i­cally, they were a sub­lime match. It seemed a sim­ple and el­e­gant idea, and of course, it was slammed by cer­tain crit­ics for just that rea­son; sim­ple and el­e­gant lacked crit­i­cal rigour. How­ever, Falls the Shadow, just as Paint­ing, More Paint­ing, achieved one thing: both shows pro­voked de­bate and dis­cus­sion, clearly a healthy thing. Whether they were pro or con the ex­hi­bi­tions them­selves, pun­ters were forced to take a po­si­tion and ar­tic­u­late their ar­gu­ments. I my­self thought the con­cept of a se­ri­ous re­con­sid­er­a­tion of paint­ing, es­pe­cially in a gallery renowned for its avoid­ance of the brush over the last decade, was bril­liant. Many com­plained that there were very se­ri­ous omis­sions, which was true and could have been par­tially ad­dressed by a more level play­ing field – the mini-sur­vey shows could have been re­placed by the works of up to 10 more artists. Rather than hang­ing the show al­pha­bet­i­cally, it could have been pre­sented more the­mat­i­cally; a sec­tion ex­plor­ing fig­u­ra­tion, an­other ab­strac­tion and so on. Still, it did in­spire a de­gree of al­most fever­ish dis­cus­sion and one did not re­quire a PhD to ap­pre­ci­ate the cen­tral ar­gu­ments. To­day it seems one re­quires a PhD not only to cu­rate a show, but to un­der­stand its sup­posed con­tent. To­day it seems that one must come up with a “hip” con­cept – Sin­gu­lar­ity, the An­thro­pocene, what­ever is in the ether, per­haps even the daz­zling con­cept that some artists still “paint” – then

write an im­pen­e­tra­ble es­say that jams the of­ten be­wil­dered artists into the cu­ra­tor’s ar­gu­ment. Course de­scrip­tions for study­ing cu­rat­ing make this abun­dantly clear. One must achieve a “the­o­ret­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion of the dis­play and re­cep­tion of con­tem­po­rary art”. And “your the­o­ret­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion will be sup­ported by project-based work to give you a crit­i­cal and prac­ti­cal ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the is­sues in­volved in con­cep­tu­al­is­ing, de­vel­op­ing and pre­sent­ing ex­hi­bi­tions, in­clud­ing spa­tial think­ing and plan­ning,” and so on. Upon suc­cess­ful com­ple­tion of this course, you will be able to “ex­am­ine and in­ter­pret the knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of cu­ra­to­rial prac­tice” and “crit­i­cally dis­cuss and re­view in­no­va­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in cu­ra­to­rial and ex­hi­bi­tion prac­tice” and “iden­tify, eval­u­ate and ap­ply some of the ideas and prac­tices con­cern­ing con­tem­po­rary cu­rat­ing” and “crit­i­cally re­flect upon the is­sues in­volved in con­cep­tu­al­is­ing, de­vel­op­ing and pre­sent­ing con­tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions”. What used to be fun has be­come a dry “to do” list. The artists be­come lab rats in or­der to prove the cu­ra­tor’s hy­poth­e­sis. Thus we see ex­hi­bi­tions that, to quote one cu­ra­tor’s state­ment, ex­plore “realms of the un­known and po­ten­tially un­know­able as­pects of human un­der­stand­ing – the things that we can’t fully com­pre­hend or for which words and recog­nis­able forms sim­ply do not ex­ist” and ad­dress “lim­i­nal spa­ces, trans­pos­ing and trans­form­ing ma­te­ri­als from the fa­mil­iar to the foreign in or­der to ex­plore themes of un­cer­tainty and cri­sis”. Mean­ing, pre­cisely what, I re­main un­sure. In 30 years of con­ver­sa­tions with prac­tis­ing artists I swear I have never heard any artist use the phrase “lim­i­nal spa­ces”. Yet this is a per­fect ex­am­ple of the lan­guage be­ing taught not only to cu­ra­tors, but to young artists through­out the aca­demic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. In a de­cid­edly in­for­mal sur­vey taken over sev­eral months in 2016, ask­ing artists how of­ten cu­ra­tors had vis­ited their stu­dios, the an­swer was, all too reg­u­larly, “never”. Thus, with many of the cu­rated shows, the ac­tiv­ity does not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect what the artist is as­pir­ing to, but rather what the cu­ra­tor be­lieves the artist should as­pire to: the cu­ra­tor’s vi­sion comes first and fore­most, the artist is only there to bol­ster and il­lus­trate the of­ten hy­per-aca­demic the­ory of the PhD-clutch­ing grad­u­ate cu­ra­tor out to make their mark. Uni­ver­sity-bred cu­ra­tors rarely have a com­mer­cial bone in their bod­ies. That can be a good thing. They of­ten present artists that the com­mer­cial gal­leries would treat with dis­dain. Ex­traor­di­nar­ily pow­er­ful shows have been cu­rated at the likes of The Australian Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art, the Monash Uni­ver­sity Mu­seum of Art and Syd­ney’s Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art through to the more chal­leng­ing “al­ter­na­tive” spa­ces as Chalk Horse Gallery and First Draft Gallery in Syd­ney, Art Space in Ho­bart and Melbourne’s West Space, Utopian Slumps and Gertrude Con­tem­po­rary. A small army of cu­ra­tors, in­clud­ing Mark Feary, Char­lotte Day, Linda Michael, Melissa Lough­nan, Jane O’Neill, Kirsten Rann, Rose­mary Forde and James Kerr, amongst oth­ers, have opened our eyes to artists which may oth­er­wise have lan­guished in ob­scu­rity. Without young, ad­ven­tur­ous cu­ra­tors we may not have seen to rise of such fig­ures as Nick Mangan, Ronnie van Hout, Irene Ha­nen­bergh and Tony Gar­i­falakis. When they man­age to avoid get­ting en­grossed in aca­demic navel-gaz­ing, cu­ra­tors of con­tem­po­rary art are part of the life-blood of the vis­ual arts. They just have to be re­minded at times that it is first and fore­most about the art, not the “cu­ra­to­rial con­cept”.

“It’s the Gallery, the Cu­ra­tor asks if you can stay home on the open­ing night, they’ll han­dle ev­ery­thing“

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