Ascending the ranks in academia often means stints as co-curricular programming directors early in one’s career. As an art gallery director and lecturer supporting the curricular needs of the art department at a Catholic women’s college in the 1990s, I found it necessary to create methods for determining who would be visiting artists. Here’s a not-so-fictitious story about how I selected artists. Note for readers: This story recounts activities in the age before digital images, artists’ websites and drop boxes.
One aspect of assembling the art exhibition schedule for the college includes inviting professional artists to exhibit, work with students as visiting artists and supporting the curriculum of the art department’s various disciplines. This requires issuing a call for proposals in multiple publications and then reviewing the résumés, artists’ statements and slides. While I employ a rigorous matrix based on scoring credentials, exhibition history, craftsmanship, clarity of intention and ability to fulfill contractual obligations successfully, my internal dialogue during the review can be somewhat informal and contradictory to the rules of engagement I expect in my art appreciation classes with students.
In several words, which hopefully I refrain from uttering aloud in my office, some of the proposals are fucked up and bat shit. I recognize these are lazy utterances and the nuns don’t condone or appreciate cursing, but being articulate all the time is exhausting. I suppose I could use Robert Hughes–inspired cutting but polite words and phrases like “banal,” “prosaic,” “the work isn’t very compelling,” “the idea seems unrealized,” “the work would be more successful if …” or “the artist’s grasp on reality is tenuous.” Alas, I cannot repress the fury of hyperbolic words in the confines of my mind. In a phrase, “You don’t have to be an egg to smell a rotten one.”
First, I apply several rules of thumb to my assessment that are not included in the matrix. If anything in the packet emits an unpleasant odor or contains detritus, staining of unknown origins or remnants of hair, the proposal is rejected. I have wondered, more than once, how can paper and plastic be so saturated with the smell of cigarette smoke or fried food that it endures the time and space of being mailed across the country? I’ve contemplated whether the package can be considered a biohazard when hair presents itself upon opening that cannot be identified as human or animal. With certain types of hair, I question, was this person naked when putting together this package? and shake my head as if to remove the thought. I wash my hands frequently during the process.
It’s important to note that I distinguish between random hairs signifying slovenly behavior with artists who use hair as a medium for their work. One must recognize the significance of intricately woven Victorian hair brooches or hair wreaths, a hair shirt, or felted cat hair made into portraits from the decided lack of conditions conducive to good health imbued in random unwashed hairs accidentally falling off a body after some vigorous rubbing, scratching and such. I mindfully consider the possible horror of unpacking a crate of paintings saturated with cat urine and the resulting effect of the odor on work-study students and gallery visitors. Real-life experiences inform my discernment between art and catastrophic risk management issues, health code violations and alarmist articles in the student newspaper. To emphasize: one must always discern the difference betwixt hair-brained, hair hygiene and hair art.
Artists’ statements also signify potential quality and exhibition success. Any whiff that the artist will be high-maintenance and the proposal also goes in the reject pile. If you go on and on about the death of your dog for two pages, but your art is not about the death of your dog—rejected. If you say you’ve developed a new avant-garde style where you only paint an “impression” of the scene, that’s called Impressionism. Rejected. If you are calling photographs of different-colored inks swirling around in a vat of oil and water a scientific exploration, that is state fair spin art. Rejected. Soft porn (unless it is ironic or postmodern)? Rejected. If you quote Foucault, Sontag, Benjamin or anyone else, for that matter—rejected. If you write in the third person—rejected. And no fucking poetry, either! Rejected. Please, just tell me about your inspiration, your process and why your art matters. I need your statement to inform the press releases I write so that people come to see your work. Help me!
I long for something amazing in the sea of absurd, abstruse and obscene proposals. Ones that make me say, “You want to do what with what? Wow. That could be interesting.” Once, an artist transformed one of the galleries from top to bottom with gigantic roses with stems and leaves, along with cloud forms made entirely from window screening. Components hung from the ceiling, walls and along the floor. It was lit dramatically with spotlights. The silvery tones, shadows and gradation of gray were ethereal and breathtaking. When the viewer realized it was window screening, it made it more spectacular.
One artist selected worked with students to create a reproduction of Victorian wallpaper using nothing but vegetables. The vegetables were nailed and stapled on the wall in precise patterns, convincingly appearing as wallpaper. Only the gallery’s refrigerator-like low temperature and humidity belied the fact. The “wallpaper” changed shape and color, withering to nothing by the show’s end. It poetically suggested the nature of memory, nostalgia and time.
Another exhibition focused on the work of a priest who made sea creature–looking vessels from scraps of magazines and tens of thousands of staples. Each object was encrusted, shiny and heavy. You can’t imagine the obsessive-compulsive quality. I think the pieces were made better knowing a priest made them. One imagines him in a sparsely appointed, dimly lit room at a wooden desk, stapling and stapling like a medieval monk working on an illuminated manuscript. There was undoubtedly an element of penitent meditation.
Buying supplies for these exhibitions could be problematic for the college’s business office staff. They often thought I was buying something for home use or doing something fraudulent—as if I needed two hundred boxes of staples. Sure. I’m going to peddle staples around like crack to the department secretaries. I found the only way to combat these queries was to invite the controller to the opening receptions so she could see with her own eyes and/or secure photo documentation for the auditors.
Procuring supplies challenges contemporary art gallery directors working with visiting artists regularly. Store clerks and managers always want to know what I do with various items and why. Most of the time, I casually offer, “You don’t want to know.” Once a student (named withheld) and I went to Costco and bought 50 pounds of salt for an installation. The cashier asked me, “Are you a white witch?” She seemed disappointed when I responded, “No.”
When I think about the importance of artistic media, I wonder why people get stuck on certain rules. For example, to be art, the object must be painted on canvas, drawn or printed on paper, or chiseled in stone. I think about the outrage that ensues from artists challenging these notions. Was it really urine in Andres Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ), or did he say it was and people believed it? For all we know, it could have been Mountain Dew rather than the trucker bomb he claimed. He could have been just yanking everyone’s chain. People got so freaked out about the idea of it being urine and the notion that a photograph was a document of truth. It wigged people out. But what’s the difference between that and all the graphic images of saints in the history of art? St. Bartholomew flayed; St. Sebastian shot with arrows; St. Agatha’s breasts cut off; John the Baptist decapitated. Did the scene depict something that really happened, or is it just a metaphor? I think that’s why we provide experiences outside the classroom—it offers opportunities for students to work along practitioners and scholars and to see firsthand the power of questioning, challenging and wondering.