Guest Post by Eric Asboe
In a time of increasingly conceptually-based, historically-located, over-explained art practices, it can be refreshing to enter galleries devoid of writing, white but for the objects on the walls and spilling across the floors. In contrast to the recent sprawling Cindy Sherman retrospective and the forthcoming Art(ists) on the Verge exhibition that explores interactive or participatory networked based practices, Painter Painter at The Walker Art Center and R.U.R. at The Soap Factory appear to be spare, quiet returns to formalism.
Sarah Crowner’s eye-grabbing Ciseaux Rideaux and Judith Hoffman’s immense Rebuilt and Torn Down (The Soap Factory) draw visitors into the galleries. Works deeper in the exhibitions begin displaying the time and effort of their creation. Colin Lyons’s The Conservator displays hundreds of corroded copper and zinc plates, while suspending others in the act of powering the large chemical battery. The paint of Alex Olson’s Proposal 9 and Proposal 10 is marked by her visceral brushstrokes and knife pulls. Nadine Anderson’s video work presents a less physical, but clearly felt digital manipulation. The multiplied, blended, superimposed video elements draw the viewer into the process of their creation.
These glimpses into the processes of the artists point to the larger concerns of both exhibitions generally. As static and formal as the works appear to be, the exhibitions are truly invitations to move beyond the walls of the gallery, to delve into the process of art making, to begin exploring the artists’ bodies of work and their relations to contemporary art practices.
Eric Crosby and Bartholomew Ryan, the Painter Painter co-curators, write in their “Notes for an Exhibition” that through extensive research, studio visits, and conversations they have come to understand painting today “as a means, not an end,” that for the artists presented in the exhibition, “painting is a generative process” Similarly, Ben Haywood, the R.U.R. curator and Executive Director of The Soap Factory, states that the site-specific works of R.U.R., all explore the role of “direct work in the creation of the art object.”
How that “process,” “work,” extended conversations, and deeper understandings manifest themselves in the art objects is not immediately apparent in the exhibitions. Fergus Feehily’s three paintings speak directly to one another, but they do not necessarily demonstrate the “personal formal play that the artist has called on his materials to negotiate,” that Ryan writes of witnessing in Feehily’s studio. Similarly, Kimberly Ellen Green’s untitled ceramic works fill The Soap Factory with their interlocking, architectural curves, but their connections to what Haywood sees as the “reproducible industrial atom” are abstracted.
In addition to the statements prepared by the curators, The Walker is presenting talks and interviews with artists from Painter Painter as well as releasing blog posts and video interviews from all fifteen artists throughout the duration of the exhibition. The Soap Factory’s supplementary materials include artist talks and audio and video interviews with Haywood and artists. These types of additional views of the artists and artwork of the exhibitions are certainly not new, but, as curators point away from the gallery, away from the observable work of the artists, for deeper and maybe truer understanding of those artists’ work, the curators play just as large a role in creating the materiality of the exhibition as the artists.
Both Painter Painter and R.U.R. demonstrate the wonderful complexity and formal delight of contemporary artistic practices, and, similarly, the supplementary material provides deep insight into the practices and processes of the artists. The balance between the exhibitions and supplements, however, demonstrates the difficulty inherent in multiply-sited, art-object-as-documentation exhibitions. Olson writes in an interview with Crosby, that painting’s “greatest asset is that is has no function other than as an art object. It isn’t fooling anyone: it’s extremely clear about what it consists of and what it’s offering.” With that simplicity and surface in mind, how, then, can we navigate the slippery slope between the very present “art objects” of both Painter Painter and R.U.R. and the processes that they purport to exemplify? How do we balance our engagement with the work of the artists and the work of the curators?
Eric Asboe is an artist, writer, and cultural worker. As Art Director of Public Space One gallery and performance space in Iowa City, Iowa, Asboe helped shape its nationally-engaged exhibitions and programming, including the microgranting meal SOUP and the award-winning Free @rt School. Asboe’s creative works prioritize process over product and explore the boundary between practice as improvement and practice as way of life. Forthcoming projects include ubuwebtopten.com. He currently lives and works in Minneapolis.