25th ANNUAL POSITIVE/NEGATIVE NATIONAL JURIED ART EXHIBITION
Juror: Julien Robson, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA)
January 14 to February 5, 2010, Slocumb Galleries
Juror's lecture and reception: February 5, First Friday, 4 to 6 p.m.
a: So you are the one who gets to choose?
b: I guess you could put it that way. But lets say its more of a process of applying my own sensibilities as a curator to selecting works from a large submission and ...
a: But you get to choose, don't you!
b: OK, lets agree that I choose.
a: Well, how do you choose?
b: Its complicated..
a: You're dodging the question!
b: OK, OK! Let me try and explain what I do.
a: Go ahead.
b: Well, its starts when someone calls and asks if you can jury an open exhibition. Its a challenging prospect because you know that you are going to see a huge amount of images and all you will have to go on are these slides and a group of artists' statements. You don't get to see resume's so there is no prejudice toward or against artists' educational backgrounds or exhibition track record. Of course, looking at the images, you have to imagine a lot, because, as you know, slides only resemble the way a work looks, they are not actually the work you experience when you stand in front of the object itself. Scale, accuracy of color, etcetera, are things that cannot be fully comprehended from a slide.
a: But you have the artist's statement to help you along, don't you!
b: That's true, but I have to admit that sometimes an artist's statement can get in the way. Imagine that the artist is describing to you what their work is about and you see something completely different. You know, as if the work bears no resemblance to what they are talking about. I'll admit that many artists write cogently about their work but sometimes you come across a statement that seems to be at odds with what you see. Occasionally an artist might write in a way that sounds missionary, which is problematic to say the least.
a: ...then you exclude them don't you?
b: Well no. That an artist's statement does not seem to match up to what you see does not invalidate the work at all, and my primary interest is not how an artist has been conditioned to talk about their work. It's actually the things that appear in the work that interest me--the image or images, juxtapositions and relationships, use of color, form, subject matter, title etc--and the artist's statement, at its best, can give me some clues as to the critical framework the artist is addressing. In this way they might flesh out the context of the work in a situation where I might only be seeing two or three of their works in reproduction. As for what I am looking for, I suppose that, as a curator, I would take the position that I'm looking for the way that a work embraces and challenges, that is, comes into a dialog with "art itself."
a: Are you trying to get at the way a work of art finds its relation to meaning through a framework of contexts?
b: Yes, that is one concern. But I am also concerned with the way a work of art resists closure. Often we tend to talk about a work of art in terms of what it is "about." You know the thing: "My work is about blah, blah, blah..,." or "So and so's work is about blah, blah, blah." I would agree that when we discuss what we think a work is "about" we find keys to its potential meaning, but it is more the instability of "about-ness" that interests me, or how a work might imply certain meanings yet won't allow meaning to be singular. While it can be described as being about one thing, it can also be described as being about many other things.
a: This sounds a bit like you're stealing the idea that curator Sue Spaid proposes when she juxtaposes "about-ness" with the idea of "is-ness."
b: Yes, I'm interested in this idea. I think I'm coming from a position where the "effect" of the work, and the viewer's critical engagement with their subjective response to that "effect," is what really interests me. But in order to discuss that subjective response there are also elements in the work that have to fulfill certain conditions for me; one being the ability of the work to defy a closure of meaning, or neat tying up of what its about. Succinctly, I guess, I would describe these works as being ambiguous and resistant. To put it another way, the descriptions that we might make of them are contingent and can't be literalized.
a: Yes, but you can say what the work of art looks like, can't you? C'mon, a picture of a tree is a picture of a tree!
b: Well, I would say that the self-contained artwork has an ambiguous relationship to reality. Because it bears resemblance to things in the external world it creates a confusion between what it is and what it means. For instance, a picture of a tree is not literally a tree but, instead, a stand-in for a tree. In its role as a stand-in, the picture uses conventions of painting to convey certain ideas about the tree. However, aside this level of signification, drawn from painting's ability to realize illusion, the picture also has a material body: the paint, the texture of the surface, and so on that are the physical corollary of the illusion. So this painting, whatever it might be depicting, provides a particularly intense experience of reality while not belonging to that reality in a straightforward way. All at once it "is" both real and illusory, and yet you, as a viewer, can never fully see both aspects simultaneously.
a: So are you looking for this intense experience in the works you get to choose?
b: I suppose that when confronted with an array of slides by a large number of artists--many whose work I am not familiar with--I start with my own subjective response. As I said earlier, I have to imagine a lot as these are just flat images I am seeing on a computer screen. So I bring my own experience, and familiarity with what works of art look like, to bear on what I see. Of course I am also thinking about what the context of the work might be, where it is coming from artistically. It helps that, in this case, each artist had sent in three or four examples of their works. That way I was able to get some sense of consistency.
a: But isn't your own subjective response arbitrary? Aren't you just picking works that suit your own taste or are familiar?
b: I think every curator can be seen to gravitate toward certain works or ways of making art and it has been remarked that I have a preponderance for texture. But I think that's more to do with focus than taste. I think that what a curator brings to a juried show is not simply a subjective response but also the knowledge and experience of thinking about works of art in groups, put together, selected and exhibited. On a daily basis I am looking at works of art and thinking about their individual qualities and their interrelationship to other works, considering their potential meanings and the various contexts through which these meanings are mediated. I also cannot help but be concerned with certain areas of practice that seem to me to be more critically engaging than others.
a: ergo, what you think is important, so you get to choose?
b: You really like that question about choosing. I think that a curator's role is an active one. I think that when curators put exhibitions together they are constructing another layer of potential meaning. Its not simply connoisseurship, itself a practice that seems more exclusionary than productive. It is, instead, a creative act that, in this case, collides together a group of works by artists who probably, in most cases, don't even know of each other. But it is the process of looking at them over and over again, rearranging images on the desktop of my computer, thinking around connectivities, that starts the process of selection.
a: ...so you get to choose!
b: I'll ignore that interruption. The images of the works are present in front of me and what fascinates me is the way they invade each other. As thumbnails they have been shuffled around a lot and what catches my attention is how these works shy away from singularity, are not prescriptive but poetic. While their particularities might engage them with, among other things, perceptual effect or critical discourse they don't become reduced to either. I think there is an intensity that is achieved in this ambiguity and what it leads me to think about, for example, is: how do they engage the way we perceive the world; how do they address the realm of the unconscious; how do they disclose the complexity of identity politics; how do they invoke the complex relationship of word and image. There are particularities in each work but what I have focused on is how those particularities lead outward. Imagine interpretation as a process of unpacking boxes from inside each other, except that the box inside is always larger than the one that contains it. I would propose that the more we examine the particularities of a work of art the more its relationship to the world should expand through discursive connectivity.
a: So you get to choose individual works in the way you might choose works for shows at the museum where you work?
b: I would say similarly but not quite the same. Because the juried show presents you with artists who have chosen to apply, its a bit different from what I might do elsewhere. Also, I have been concerned with creating a context where each artist can show a pair or a group of three works. This is important so that viewers can better experience how the artist works. As much as they can, these two or three works contextualize the artist's practice. While reducing the number of artists that I can include from the submission it also shifts the emphasis of the show, so that its not just a personal pot-luck choice but a choice that engages how I, as a curator, think about contemporary artistic practice. What I choose reflects this interface between the work and the curator.
a: So, you admit, you get to choose!
b: OK, I get to choose! I think that's enough! I'm leaving...
Curator of Contemporary Art, Julien Robson relocated to Philadelphia in 2008 after eight years in Louisville, Kentucky where he was Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum and Adjunct Professor at the University of Louisville. A native of Scotland, Robson initially trained as an artist at Bath Academy of Art, and the Slade School of Fine Art in London before taking up curatorial positions at the University of Sussex and, subsequently, the University of Southampton, England. During the 1990s Robson lived in Austria, working in the commercial gallery sector in Vienna, and in 1998 he spent six months as Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
At the Speed Art Museum Robson developed his reputation as an imaginative exhibitions organizer through projects such as Presence (2004-2005), Gaela Erwin: Facing the Subject (2006), Marcel: Marcel (2007), Flavia Da Rin: Eyes Wide Open (2008), and Werner Reiterer: Raw Loop (2008). His publications include Djawid Borower: Portraits of Money (2000); Gathering Light: Richard Ross (2001); Ed Hamilton: From the Other Side (2002); Reverie: Works from the Collection of Douglas S Cramer (2003); and Presence (2005) as well as contributions to The Speed Art Museum: Highlights From the Collection (Merrell, 2007)
Best of Show:
Christie Blizard, TX
Bruce Pollock, PA
Tanner Young, NE
Bruce Allen, LA
Aaron J. Bernard, NC
Christie Blizard, TX
Jared Lee Cleghorn, TN
Carrie Dyer, AR
Brian Glaze, NC
Carol Hanna, MI
Jean Hess, TN
Cahib Jaddo, TX
Josh Johnson, NE
Ray Ogar, AR
Rachel Simmons, FL
Laura Yang, DE