Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jay Sanders @ MOCA

This afternoon, Sanchito's art class had a rip-roaring session at the Museum of Contemporary Art with curator Jay Sanders (who sits, appropriately, at the head of the table in the photograph above). What, we wanted to know, is the role of the curator in the contemporary art-world?

Few are presently better suited to answer that question than Jay Sanders. As he explained to the students, Jay came to curating by a slightly oblique path. After writing an undergraduate thesis on Pierre Bourdieu and sociological theories of art, he moved to New York where he worked in commercial galleries, acting as a curator, dealer, and critic. Then, in the fall of 2010, he got a call from Elizabeth Sussman at the Whitney Museum of American Art asking him to co-curate the 2012 Whitney Biennial with her. Since early 2011, Jay has thus been touring the country, visiting galleries and studios to choose from the roughly ten thousand viable artists currently at work in the U.S. (in his estimate) to the sixty or so who will be included in the prestigious Biennial.

How, one student asked, does an aspiring artist go about breaking into the artworld—to catching the attention of influential curators, critics or dealers? Unlike the music business which has changed so radically in recent years due to digital downloading, Jay noted that many of the traditional artworld channels and networks of established authority still remain in place. Prestigious art schools in New York, LA and other  major metropolitan centers continue to attract leading artists as instructors and ambitious students to work with them. Critics and dealers searching for emerging talent still pay keen attention to their degree shows.

Also slowing the torrential flood of change experienced elsewhere, Jay later noted, is the sheer heft of objects. Unlike a downloaded song, artworks still have to be shipped, insured, stored at great cost, and experienced in person. This slowness—this awkwardness and physical substantiality—of visual art in moments of purportedly accelerating time is not only an emerging theme of recent art-historical writing, but a veritable artworld talking point. In our class session at CalArts last week, for example, Norman Klein observed the curious and marked phenomenon of art students born in the digital age who are completely fascinated with outmoded, analogue technologies. Taking this as evidence for his theory that time runs backwards in Los Angeles, Klein claimed that what these student often attempt to do is reconstruct at great manual labor a visual or sonic effect that could be achieved nearly effortlessly with a few, digital keystrokes.

But, as Jay underscored this afternoon, the influx of money into contemporary art in recent decades and the increasing numbers of willing buyers means that traditional structures are becoming unmoored as the scene itself metastasizes. This offered an interesting point of engagement with Bourdieu, key figure in Jay's own earlier work. For, in the 2008 re-issue of Art Worlds, Howard Becker includes a fascinating interview in which he makes a strong distinction between his conception of the artworld as a "world" in contradistiction to Bourdieu's organizing notion of a "field"—as in "the field of cultural production." Field, Becker asserts, is not only a term freighted with associations with the physical sciences, but its zero-sum game is an artifact of France's rigid, highly-stratified, "closed-shop" academic system in which Bourdieu operated. World, by contrast, is a product of American sociology in the post-War boom years in which nebulous constellations of possibility were ever in ferment. With its global-capital flush and increasing blur between artist, curator, dealer, theorist, teacher and collector, contemporary art remains—despite the financial crisis of 2008—very much a world in that sense.

Such blurring of boundaries in ages of affluence was all very much to the point with the show that Jay then guided us through. If you haven't seen it, William Leavitt: Theater Objects is a real trip—a fascinating medition on narrative and its disruption, on props and prompters, on the place and no place that is Los Angeles. Leavitt is a stalwart of the contemporary LA art scene, an "artists' artist" whose work has rarely been shown on the scale of this retrospective. He constructs set-like tableau facades (or what appear to be studies for them), complete with piped in music, fragmentary scripts for scenarios, and lighting effects.

Returning to our over-arching theme here seemed irresistible. If the "artist/curator" phenomenon is now well known in the contemporary artworld, might Leavitt's art be fundamentally about curating in a deeper sense? As presented at MOCA at least, Leavitt undercuts the viewer's habitual impulse to respond to discrete works. What kind of response, after all, are we really supposed to have to a garage-sale-looking painting of a crouching jaguar? Instead, Leavitt asks us to assay relationships between objects, to think through the inferences we fashion from their tantalizingly oblique, frustratingly opaque or simply mundane sequences. One way to interpret all this, I suppose, would be to detect a positive embrace of that beholder characteristically required by "theatrical" art (in Michael Fried's pejorative sense)—and to observe its commensurate deferral of actual art-making in favor a curating of provocative situations in which art might happen. But, is this Leavitt's point? Or is it this instead an argument being run by the curators who have, after all, decided to call the show "William Leavitt: Theater Objects"? And, if artists are now effectively curators, curators effectively artists, how would we ever know? Unfortunately, Jay had to leave at that point!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hanging out with David Wilson at the Museum of Jurassic Technology

As you'll recall, the venerable Johannes BraĆ¼meister and I, Sanschontz, are currently teaching a class together called Artworlds. What, we ask, is the art-world? How does it develop historically? Who or what are its principle players? By what means do they assign value, meaning or art-status to certain objects, spaces or behaviors?

Because questions like those could get out of hand pretty quickly, we approach the theoretical problem through the case at hand. That is, we use  modern and contemporary Los Angeles as our laboratory,  teaching nearly three quarters of our course sessions "in the field." The aim is to introduce the students to various LA art-world sites through theoretical/historical readings, on-site study and often, if we are lucky, meetings with key figures. This past Saturday, we had such a serendipitous meeting with none other than David Wilson, founder of the famous Museum of Jurassic Technology.

If you've managed to find your way to this humble blog, I should probably assume that you need an explanation of neither what the Museum with Jurassic Technology (MJT) is nor why it might be interesting to think about in relation to studying the artworld. But, just to be on the safe side ... the MJT looks like a banal storefront from the street. Inside, however, is a dark, strange mash-up of wunderkammer, house of horrors, and movie theater, offered as both ode to and satire of the history of museums.

After fumbling our way through the dark warren of display spaces, our group eventually gathered in the Russian tea room on the second floor where Wilson came to meet us. Asked by one of the students how the MJT began, Wilson went into story-telling mode and delivered a narrative which is admirably set out in Lawrence Weschler's charming book on the MJT, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. Here is the basic story as Weschler quotes it from Wilson:

"Well, the seed material ... came down to us through the collection of curiosities originally gathered by the Thums—that's Owen Thum and his son, Owen Thum the Younger, who were botanists, or I guess really just gardeners in southwestern Nebraska, in South Platte. ... [This was] in the first half of the century—say, the twenties for the father, and on into the fifties with Owen the Younger. But then a man named Gerard Bilius essentially stole the material. It's a complicated story, but Bilius was a man with money, also from Nebraska ... he saw some value in the collection and he befriended Owen the Younger—who, let's face it, was a kind of bumpkin, not very sophisticated—and he got Owen the Younger to write a deed of gift to him, Billius, into his will. Billius was a lawyer. As the years passed, Owen the Younger and his wife, Hester, began to sense Billius's true nature and they tried to retract the deed ... [but] it all ended with her drowned in the backyard pool under highly suspicious circumstances." (Weschler, 30-1)

I quote this story at some length as it true ... but in a strange way. I'm sure you've already picked up on it. That is, the events described—where a father and son who are gardeners (or green "Thums") and who share the same first name establish a collection of rarities only to be swindled by a lawyer, dragged into extensive litigation such that the younger gardener's wife named Hester ends up drowned in the backyard pool—all this happened not in the 1920s - '50s, but three hundred years earlier. The characters involved were famed gardeners John Tradescant, Elder and Younger, Hester Pookes Tradescant and the devious lawyer was none other than Elias Ashmole, founder of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum.

So, as Wilson is telling this story, I began to feel like I was getting some insight into the ways and workings of the MJT itself. What is being said or shown is "true" in a sense—it bears some kind of factual relationship to historical events, cultural beliefs and natural processes. But, the terms of that relation—the ways in which a given statement is true—are highly peculiar. They undermine or defamiliarize the conventions by which we expect to be able to rely upon institutions, authorities and our perceptions to know things such that we are thrown back into negotiation with doubt. Or, as Wilson put it, nominally speaking of the visible illumination of the display area itself but no doubt talking about other matters: "Things seen dimly are often best perceived." Maybe, to take something that has been on my mind of late, the Museum presents truths in the oblique, scrambled ways that dreams do. But, that's probably a topic for another time.