“When I began my career, the categorical imperative of every young writer was to represent his own time. Full of good intentions, I tried to identify myself with the ruthless energies propelling the events of our century, both collective and individual. I tried to find harmony between the adventurous picaresque inner rhythm that prompted me to write and the frantic spectacle of the world, sometimes dramatic and sometimes grotesque. Soon I became aware that between the facts of life that should have been my raw materials and the quick light touch I wanted for my writing, there was a gulf that cost me increasing effort to cross.”
-Italo Calvino, “Lightness,” 1981
As a young writer (and curator) myself, only able to reflect on the last few months of reviewing art exhibitions and events, I find Calvino’s sentiments resonate with my own objectives—I would only need to insert the word “art” before some of the nouns in Calvino’s statement. I am using writing as a lens to discuss common curatorial concepts. In his last sentence, Calvino mentions “a gulf,” appropriating this metaphor to my subject at hand, at least one “gulf “ could easily be the simplest and most readily trotted out of curatorial premises: Group Shows.
The group show, based upon any listing site in San Francisco, appears to be by far the primary way of viewing art in a gallery setting. With any number of approaches to putting work of multiple artists together in one space, with or without a formal “curator,” penning a short graceful narrative about these exhibitions can often prove an odd feat. There are three examples I would like to highlight, all open for your viewing pleasure.
“6/6/6: Six Artists, Six Cities, Six Connections,” Group Show at Queen’s Nails:
An exhibition with connectivity at the crux of it's thesis, this approach to putting together a show is loosely based around the idea of the oft-referenced Exquisite Corpse, where each artist used social media to select the next artist in the show. An exhibition concept as old as [modern] time, does this interpretation of connectivity and drawing connections create something new and exciting?
“Nothing to Say,” Group Show at Guerrero Gallery:
The works in this show were selected through their use of text in their works. A broad concept at best (a featured piece from the show is a face coming out of a Cheetos bag, “Cheetos” being the “text” of the piece), the title must be ironic (naturally?) and the results are undoubtedly varied. But does just having a word in your work create any narrative of an exhibition?
Jaime Cortez, Kenneth Lo, Ginger Wolfe-Suarez, Three Solo Exhibitions at Southern Exposure:
Three solo exhibitions, each with their own title and lovely accompanying essay, all set right next to each other in one space. This non-group-show of multiple artists succeeds by having the curatorial niceties that can help such projects (i.e. Literature, thematic consistency within each exhibition) but suffers still from the rhetoric of a group show where there is inherent qualitative differences in the participating artists that create environmental contexts skewing the “solo” qualities of each set of works. When visiting one of the artists' installations, one is hard-pressed not to immediately discuss the work in context to the other exhibitions inches away.
All this is not to say that group shows are usually kind of horrible and so hard to write about. There may or may not be realistic reasons why the Group Show as a general concept gets deployed: the lack of a commercial backbone in a community of artists makes space more of a premium, the apparatus for marketing merely being inviting your friends to your show and their friends by extension to show up, historical trends and specific spaces that need to be considered as a group to make any vaguely anthropological sense (“Make Your Own Life: Art in and Out of Cologne” or “In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960–1976” to name only two on the high-end of museum exhibition-making).
Sometimes the Group Show is employed in a curatorial theater, the kind that Anton Vidokle in his increasingly influential essay “Art Without Artists,” points out as an authorial push to be pushed back against. Or how does one hang something as inconsistently conceived and driven as a museum’s permanent collection, especially an encyclopedic museum, which is collected by opportunity as much as changing curator’s changing visions? All these questions become doubly salient, as other writers have pointed out, because just about everything is becoming curated, from your local record store struggling for existence to the algorithmic suggestions of websites and net retailers like Pandora, Netflix, and Amazon (“If you like A, you should check B, C, and D”). This is just to say that these things have been thought about before, but reading over the literature one finds as literal resolution or consensus in the curatorial paper mill as there are in your street corner group show, t-shirts and spray cans included.
I am only reflecting on my own impetus for writing and curating, what I’ve seen and what I can see, all based on Calvino’s desire to tap into the rhythm amongst the visual landscape presented in my time, in my community. To excavate relevancy and highlight the lightness (or heaviness) that art can bring to the human condition in everyday life, all of us trying to interpret the irregular rhythms of chance and impulse, the modicum of chaos found everyday, into the orderly thing we look back upon and call life. I often find that even in my own curating and writing, the task is daunting and can be easier to default to simple presenting for the sake of presenting… Perhaps the pointing finger, declaring in its way, “Hey, check that out” is more often enough than organizers of art can ever really care to admit.
- Kara Q. Smith
(Images: John Baldessari: Commissioned Painting: A Painting by Emil Bourke, 1969, Oil and acrylic on canvas; Commissioned Painting: A Painting by George Walker 1969, Oil and acrylic on canvas, Both images courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery © John Baldessari)