Although “meta” is often misused as dismissive shorthand for the self-referential, it is, in its most fruitful sense, a tool for critical distance. Will Brown’s second exhibition was a history of black monochrome painting that included requisite, museum-quality copy and literature, but the paintings themselves were merely signified by chalk outlines on black gallery walls. The shapes creeped over moldings and ceiling space, overlapping in ways that made it clear that even if the proprietors of the modest storefront space could get their hands on an Ad Reinhardt, it wouldn’t even fit in the gallery.
“In wrestling with real estate rather than canvas,” said Will Brown, “Untitled (Black Painting) explores the struggle between the loftily idealistic and acutely concrete at the heart of realizing a contemporary non-commercial exhibition venue."
A hilarious, if pitiable act of meta-curating that nonetheless draws a kind of much needed critical attention to the word. There was still plenty of beer and good conversation at that opening, which opened up even more questions about how art and community coalesce in physical space. Add fun, chill-vibes, a concern for engagement, and you start to have an idea of what Will Brown is about.
Will Brown can be said to operate under the sometimes dubious-sounding descriptor of Experimental Exhibition Space, but it’s still a meager indicator of what actually happens there. Will Brown is a guy—I’ve met him, though he isn’t necessarily involved with Will Brown.
More to our purposes, Will Brown is a gallery space where three very smart and funny people get together to realize all the “what ifs” that don’t fit neatly into their other, more conventionally respectable art-world roles. The goings-on of Will Brown have ranged from their inaugural exhibition of pilfered art objects to a goth dance-night fundraiser, an evening of standup comedy fused with live figure drawing, a land art-themed miniature golf course, and a screening of the latest Judd Apatow movie. On February 22nd they'll be reperforming a piece by James Lee Byars on the 25th anniversary of the original performance.
On the heels of their one-year anniversary, David Kasprzak, Jordan Stein and Lindsay White spoke to me as one under the auspices of collective moniker. Mr. Brown is also one of sixteen recipients of a 2012 Alternative Exposure grant from Southern Exposure foundation, which they plan to use for an exhibition inspired by the life and work of James Lee Byars (with related programming), and a publication containing the contents of former SFMoMA Director Henry Hopkins’ rolodex.
"Earth Putt // Putt Works"; Courtesy of Will Brown.
Where do ideas for exhibitions begin? So many of them read like meta-commentary on the difficulty of putting together exhibitions.
We go to the middle eastern restaurant Old Jerusalem on Mission at 25th quite a bit. Sometimes they have the music turned up and we order French Fries with our falafel. For whatever reason, many ideas spring from there. Over dinner, we'll talk about artworks or installations or articles or rumors or impressions that have crossed our metaphorical desk that week. Something sticks, a spark, and we either try to cement that spark in gold or destroy that spark as elegantly as possible. It’s not a studio practice, what we do. It’s more in line with social practice, but it’s not that either. It’s a hybridized approach that uses the exhibition template as a formula to celebrate and/or distort within a public context.
If there's no art, WHAT are you curating? Maybe curating isn't the right word. Feel free to make one up.
“Curating” is a very loaded and perhaps overly discussed term right now. We’re excited to be part of an expanding dialogue about what curating is and should be, but you’re right, maybe curating isn’t the right term for what it is that Will Brown does. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be better language at the moment. It’s something that we hope to figure out through this project.
There is no art, per se, in our exhibitions. What we’re doing is working with the exhibition as a medium, like painting, photography, or anything else. Any medium has specific properties, benefits, and limitations that an artist has to learn and practice. In this way, we often research past exhibitions, artists, and the structures or support systems surrounding artworks to better understand what an exhibition is and how it can be manipulated.
You could say that we're curating, [but] we're just not curating art; we're curating exhibitions themselves. At its root, to curate means to look after and take care of. The fact that the word “curate” is so linked to both the “contemporary” and to “art" in general is curious. Whereas we do get nervous when a chef has "curated" the evening's menu, we think an expanded definition of the curatorial is in order, especially in a town with multiple graduate curatorial programs and countless interesting artists and thinkers.
The project came from rather happenstance beginnings, but as it continues do you feel the need for a more focused and/or mellifluously articulated mission for Will Brown?
While the project did start under rather unexpected circumstances, we’ve always been pretty solid on the fact that we didn’t want to overly explain or pigeonhole what it was we were doing. It’s the age of the mission statement right now -- everything has a slick “mellifluous” tag line or meaning attached to it. It’s necessary and helpful for a lot of things, but a mission statement can also stunt creative evolution or experimentation. Whatever happened to experimenting? Everything seems to be so polished and overly considered before it reaches the public eye. We want to see the awkward adolescent phase of art -- watch it develop!
We have an occasionally well-articulated mission statement, but are still rather loathe to write it down. In the end, who are these things really for? We’re not applying for NEA grants, which would necessitate the creation of such a thing. And we’re not selling anything. For a gang like Will Brown, the organizational mission statement is the equivalent of the dreaded “artist statement.” Do you know any artists who find this exercise useful outside of trying to sell or translate work to a jury or panel or collector or institution somewhere? Those things are written by gallerists looking for traction in a competitive marketplace. Who can blame them? But it’s just not for us.
The beauty of Will Brown is that we’re in charge. We can live by our own rules and figure out what we’re doing as we go. And why not? It’s easy to fall into the idea that we “must” do this or that, but we don’t have to. We started with the idea that we didn’t want to show or sell “art” in the traditional sense. We’re all interested in creating a critical space that hovers somewhere between artistic and curatorial practice, a space that dissects how and why exhibitions function and have come to define so much of what we consider “contemporary art.”
"Comedy Drawing School" event; Courtesy of Will Brown.
What advice might you give to some young blood bubbling with ideas who's scared of words like "cultural institution"?
Forget all the labels and the gluttonous amount of discussion about what should and should not be done in the artworld. Do your own research, be confident about what you’re presenting, and just try your ideas out. Some ideas will work and some won’t, but at least they’re out there in the world and you can dissect them later. There’s nothing wrong with failing.
In the end, what advice can we give outside of our own experience? Rent a space, have a dynamite lead show, raise some dollars, and aim to retire without ever penning a mission statement. Then, when you're good and ready, the cultural institutions you fear most will want to hire you. And they desperately need more people like you. So this is a good thing. It’s all a good thing.
It’s all about taking a risk and putting your ideas out there. Everyone has an opinion, but how often do they actually act upon their opinions and try to make something happen out in the world?
—Christina Catherine Martinez
(Image on top: Untitled (Black Painting); Courtesy of Will Brown.)