Guest post by Thea Liberty Nichols
Email interview conducted with James Connolly
James Connolly is a new media artist and the Assistant Curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection. He received his BFA with an Emphasis in Art History, Theory, and Criticism from SAIC in 2010.
TLN: Roger Brown had such a hilarious, ferocious and well documented repartee with art critics and writers over the course of his career– can you tell us a little bit about some of that work, and how, if at all, that’s impacted the writing you do in your role as Assistant Curator?
JC: Roger Brown had a very unique relationship to art critics. Rather than passively allowing their words to cast judgment, he would often invert the relationship of artist to critic by aggressively responding in the form of incredibly potent, strongly worded letters and even works of art that directly depicted, always in a mocking manner, writers he thought were unfairly critical of his art or that of his friends. The best example of this might be his depiction of a Chicago art critic on a freak-show-banner-style painting bent over shoving his head up his own ass.
I think a lot of Brown’s actions of this sort were influenced heavily by his interest in incredibly outspoken artists—artists such as the sign painter Jesse “Outlaw” Howard and others who, in his own words, gave him “the liberty to express [his] own deepest and most secret inner voice” through his artwork.
As the assistant curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection, I feel the need for the writing I do to adhere to or at least be based in Brown’s own words and/or the collection itself. Yet the personal, outspoken nature of many of his writings and artworks, coupled with the nature of the collection—the way that it lacks hierarchies or a set method of interpretation and engages the viewer to create their own experience—means that I’m also empowered as a writer to interpret, engage with, and conceptualize the collection from my own point of view. In fact, I feel obligated to do so.
TLN: I know typically a lot of the writing that arts administrators, such as yourself, do is from the 3rd person omniscient point of view, so I really like what you’re saying about serving more as equal parts medium and maverick. Aside from strictly writing, how much of what you do is based more in an oral tradition, or involves interviewing or interfacing with your audience?
JC: Because the Roger Brown Study Collection is a special collection of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the majority of my time is spent interfacing with an audience—usually students—in a manner that encourages an exchange of ideas and critical engagement with the space as collection, archive, and museum. This is something Brown did often. He was always willing to open the doors of his home to show his collection to any audience, and his gifting of it to SAIC is a testament to his desires to see it used in a creative and productive setting. RBSC curator Lisa Stone and I work to continue Brown’s tradition, always beginning a class visit with a slideshow contextualizing the collection in a manner that conforms to the audience’s interests. Whether the students are painters, curators, writers, performance artists, sculptors—the list could go on—there are endless ways of maneuvering through and interpreting the collection, and we attempt to provide visitors with the information and setting for them to find such paths on their own. As assistant curator I do have many ways of talking about the collection formed by my own perspectives and I often share these during tours, but I don’t view my role as being one that tells a visitor exactly how to navigate the space. A visitor’s experience of the Study Collection comes about through the spontaneity of their looking combined with the ideas they bring, and I attempt to supplement that by answering questions and sharing my own knowledge.
TLN: I remember an RBSC slide lecture being offered accompanied by 3-D glasses and also those kids View-Master slide reels being made for the zine publications that accompanied the Calif USA show— can you tell us more about the not so run-of-the-mill materials you’ve pubilshed since you’ve been there?
JC: We put together a lot of non-traditional materials using low-tech methods and somewhat obsolete technologies for the Roger Brown: Calif. USA exhibition. In that show we were engaging with a series of works Brown referred to as Virtual Still Life paintings: landscape-painted stretched canvases inside constructed frames with shelves at the bottom holding found ceramic objects. Nick Lowe, curator of Calif. USA, brought in the artist Matt Bergstrom who works with 3-d photography to train us on photographing objects for View-Master reels and images viewable in 3-d with the classic red and blue framed glasses. The idea for making these images occurred to us originally because of the three-dimensional nature of the California object paintings, but in the end I think the process fits perfectly into the aesthetic of the Study Collection in general. The View-Master as object and toy corresponds nicely to the nostalgic nature of many of the items in Brown’s collection, as does the practice of having 20 students stare at a screen while wearing 3-d glasses from Uncle Fun. Nick also put together miniatures of the complete La Conchita collection, and I’m currently working with him to recreate miniature versions of each Virtual Still Life painting. In the end, we’ve realized that, as it exists somewhere in between being a domestic space, artists’ museum, and cabinet of curiosities, run-of-the-mill exhibition materials just don’t do justice to the RBSC’s unconventional nature.
Thea Liberty Nichols is an arts administrator, independent curator and freelance writer.