It started with wordplay.
This winter, artist, writer, and curator Darren Jones emailed me musings about the art world equivalent of “triple threat.” In musical theatre a “triple threat” is someone equally skilled in singing, acting, and dancing. Are artist-writer-curators, Jones asked, the art world analog to these stars of the stage? Or is this particular combination of professions more accurately described by a turn of phrase: “triple debt,” or perhaps “triple regret”? Working across three complimentary, but very different disciplines “isn't easy to navigate,” he wrote to me. “It can be awkward when mismanaged, and yet it affords those that do it a unique position, and insight across all three practices.”
This play on words grew into a discussion in which Jones considers the politics, challenges, and perceptions of those who work as artists, curators, and writers. We spoke about his own practice(s) and insights into being a triple debtor: How does he introduce himself? Are the disciplinary lines ever blurred? Is this about money? And when is it okay to curate your own work into an exhibition?
rehung with suggested improvements to the curation, Top image is original / bottom image is my rehang.
Andrea Alessi: Can you start by telling me a bit about the history of your three practices. What came first?
Darren Jones: I was an artist first, having studied painting in Edinburgh and then at Central Saint Martins in London. After graduation, I set up a studio in Hackney—which was then the heart of the burgeoning East End art scene—with two friends, the English painters Jo Wilmot and Coco Hewitt. With so many artists in that area we knew that it was imperative to make connections and promote ourselves rather than hope for a dealer to come knocking (Charles Saatchi’s shadow was cast across the art scene at that time due to the success of the YBAs.) In 1997, with Jo and Coco, I formed the Shopfloor Collective. That consolidation of minds, contacts, and resources created energy and attracted collaborators. I loved being a part of it. We discussed our interests, argued, and put together our own shows in our Belsham Street studio. Later we curated bigger events in various London galleries and spaces. We invited our friends and fellow artists to participate and the value of cultural community became apparent.
While words had been a part of my visual art for some time, and I had written poetry since childhood, art writing would come much later. My first published piece was for Garageland Magazine #6—an opportunity that came to me through people I had known during our Shopfloor days, so it is all connected.
AA: Is there a hierarchy?
DJ: I would say that it is a constant rotation, depending upon what project is most pressing or engaging. Words are the thread connecting the three practices. Today I’m predominantly a text based artist; I write about art for various publications; and when I'm curating an exhibition I begin with forming the title and introduction.
AA: How do the three practices affect your identity? How do you introduce yourself?
DJ: They are all natural appetites within me. I am always an artist, always a curator, and always a critic, but reconciling those quite different roles into one resolution is elusive, and I think perhaps not even desirable. Each of them have the capacity to excite me at different times.
There is an odd switching between them verbally. Introducing myself as doing all three is excessive, so I often pick one or two depending on the circumstance, not to diminish the other practices, but for efficiency. How my peers consider me or define me, if they consider me at all, crosses my mind too. All three areas are currently coalescing within my visual art practice so that I am making artwork about curating and writing.
AA: Quite a few ArtSlant contributors are also artists. Ryan Trecartin just co-curated the New Museum Triennial, and increasingly curating can even be seen as a manifestation of artistic practice: Cindy Sherman’s 2013 Venice Biennale contribution, for example, was a mini-show she curated within Massimiliano Gioni’s sprawling Encyclopedic Palace.
Is the phenomenon of people being artist-writer-curators (or some combination of the three) on the rise, or has it always been this way? Historically, many artists wrote manifestos, or meditated about their work and that of their peers or forebears. And of course, there were (some major!) exhibitions organized by artists: the original Armory Show (1913), the First Impressionist exhibition (1874). Are we revisiting old history here, or do we think more artists are writing and curating today than ever before?
DJ: Being an artist and curator is common enough because while they involve different skills, to my mind, they are not so far removed from each other. And as you say there is precedent (although there is a difference between artists who curate, and academic curators who are not artists). But being a critic additionally, is rarer because that is a distinct role; there you are stepping away from the physicality and involvement of making, installing and showing work in order consider it, from an objective position, in a wider art-historical and socio-political context.
The critic has no hand in the production of an artwork or exhibition. Making or curating art is about having an idea and then presenting it to your audience so that they may form their own interpretations. Critiquing art is about being a part of that audience, making an argument, and then drawing together your conclusions to offer specific points. In a sense, artists/curators and critics come at the artwork from opposing directions.
AA: "Triple debt" implies three professions in which practitioners are financially struggling—perhaps even suggesting that the reason one might choose to do all three is because they are unable to make a living doing just one. Getting paid, working for free, and having one's labor valued are huge problems in the art world. How do you think this plays into professional decision-making?
DJ: Taking on all three practices theoretically widens the scope of income streams. One could make money from selling artwork, writing reviews, and receiving curatorial fees. But that probably remains in principle rather than practice, because being a "triple debtor" doesn't guarantee receiving those monies over someone concentrating on one practice. You are still competing with everyone else, and actually in a less concentrated way than someone who is an artist or curator. In fact having outlay in all three areas could end up being more of a "triple regret."
AA: Whether they reconcile or synthesize some of your practices or not, you do suggest some disciplinary crossover. You've been making art about writing and curating, for example. Can you talk a bit about this work?
DJ: In the Art World Watch series—a play on Human Rights Watch—I make visual commentary on the art world generally. The Hangman pieces are photographs of exhibitions, installations, or individual artworks in galleries that make an impression on me curatorially, for a show being overcrowded perhaps, or because I am appalled at the quality, or ubiquity of the work. I take a photo and rehang the exhibition or amend the artwork in photoshop, so that I have before and after images. The intent is not to insult the original curator or artist, rather it is a natural response to the act of looking at exhibitions as a critic, and then responding through my own art.
Also within the Art World Watch series I engage with museum and gallery spaces. At the Dallas Museum of Art, I made a quick TV show-themed text piece that read “private vewing” and hung it in the museum. At the New Orleans Museum of Art, I played around with their institutional signage, doing what it asked me not to. I think of these as artistic drive-by gestures, brief responses made while I’m in the situation.
Recently I used Photoshop to rearrange the text in a Jenny Holzer piece at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. I also photographed her text reflected in glass moving out across the museum’s lake. It seems that the art world has canonized her to the point of being able to walk on water.
In another line of inquiry, those preposterous lists of important/emerging/trending artists, conjured up by critics are nothing but a boon to egos and increasing web traffic. They are often without an ounce of objective reasoning. I like the Submerging Artist Scheme for artists 45 and older, presented by the Big West Festival in Australia, which is funny, but has pathos. My response to all these hyperbolic lists is the headline “List of the most Important Living Artists,” on an otherwise blank sheet of paper, or, “List of Artists who Have Pledged Never to Exhibit Their Work Again.” It’s long.
(Top image original presentation), 2015, Photoshopped digital image
AA: Another thing you brought up to me earlier was a conceptual overlap between your curatorial and artistic practices—curating as an extension of art making, which is something we see in galleries, but also in biennials and large exhibitions a lot these days: an artist takes their invitation and curates a show within a show. You mentioned wondering how you could frame what others were doing within the context of your interests, "the notion that 10...or 20 artists might disseminate the ideas better than one."
I'm curious about this idea, but also about whether there are other instrumental relationships between your practices. Art in service of writing; criticism in service of curating, etc.
DJ: The idea was that multiple artists would offer many angles on any given theme and increase the breadth of an exhibition—more than I could do alone—while sharing resources and spreading the word. It’s expansive rather than isolationist. A great recent example of this—which I had nothing to do with and which was organized by artist, Heyd Fontenot—is a fantastic show at the CentralTrak Artist Residency in Dallas, titled Who’s Afraid of Chuck and George? Dozens of the artists’ friends and colleagues contributed work to the show. The opening night was a celebration of the lives and work of the artists Brian K. Jones and Brian K. Scott as well as the contributors. It was a marvelous way for the Dallas scene to coalesce around its practitioners. All three practices relate in that way and supply the initial materials for each other. At this stage they are inextricably linked.
AA: Who are some other triple regretors whose work you admire? Are there some people you think are doing something particularly unique—be it in a combined way, or separately across several practices?
DJ: Emmanuel Cooper was an art critic, a renowned potter, publisher, teacher, editor, broadcaster, author, gay rights activist, and curator. I met him when I was 19 and new to London. His energy, industriousness and commitment to his varied causes was astonishing. I think he instilled in me the idea that one can be accomplished in many areas, if one has the work ethic and interest required.
Phong Bui is a fascinating practitioner of his crafts. In addition to helming The Brooklyn Rail, he is an artist, a writer, and a curator. He is also a teacher, radio host, and to my ear, a philosopher. He is one of the most dynamic people I know, and his ability to bring people together, as he would say "in solidarity" is unique.
Carlos Rigau's work as an artist is partially about extreme social idiosyncrasies and peripheries of Miami life. Carlos also runs General Practice, a space that operates between Miami and New York. His interests lie in setting up an experimental platform that is unencumbered by the sleek economics of the Chelsea model. General Practice, currently located in Brooklyn, might be considered an artistic workshop of trial and play, community involvement, and creative industry. Vitally, Carlos has a social intelligence and charisma without which I don't think General Practice could function quite as it does.
Jose Ruiz is an artist, curator, and teacher. He founded Furthermore in DC, which began as a digital print studio and has now expanded into exhibition/design services and artist publications as well as offering educational programs to support young artists in the area. In addition he is a co-founder—with Chad Stayrook and Brian Balderston—of Present Company, an exhibition and performance space in Brooklyn. I met Jose when he was the curator—with Erin Sickler—of the 2009 Queens International.
Michael Petry is an internationally exhibiting artist, a curator, writer, author, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and co-founder of the Museum of Installation, both in London. I'd like to ask him how keeps pace with all of these projects!
I'll stop there because I'm starting to feel lazy in comparison to all of these driven individuals.
BUT ENOUGH ABOUT ME: REDACTED ARTNEWS BJORK REPORT LEAVING THE AUTHOR'S COPIOUS SELF-REFERENCES "STATE OF EMERGENCY: BIESENBACH’S BJÖRK SHOW TURNS MOMA INTO PLANET HOLLYWOOD", 2015, 8.5 x 44"
AA: What are some of the occupational hazards of being an artist/curator/writer? When can you include your own work in a show, for example?
DJ: There are some frustrating aspects. The artist-friends of mine who I am closest to are such in part because I love their work so much. Naturally I want to write about their exhibitions, but that's is a tough area to navigate. Placing my own work in an exhibition is case by case. I've done it before and felt wretched about it afterwards, and other times it wasn't a problem. One learns. It depends on context. When I curated a large international exhibition of Scottish art at Hunter College Galleries in New York, it was not appropriate to include my own work, whereas the exhibitions I organized at St. George's Church in Queens or Trinity Museum grew out of my own practice and my connection with spiritual spaces, so there it was appropriate to include it.
AA: You say "triple regret," but can you imagine it any other way?
DJ: I'm being droll with the wordplay, but yes, I love it, and while it is a lot of work to manage them all at the same time, it is how I need it to be in order to pursue my creative interests.
(Image at top: Darren Jones, PETER SCHJELDAHL IS TIRED BUT I'M WIDE AWAKE, Edited digital image from MoMA's exhibition The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World. Original image, left. My removal, right, 2015. All images: Darren Jones. Courtesy of the artist)