A Conjunction of Curators

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The Arlington Art Center Curators Spotlight Show

When a curator combines a handful of artists, all doing different things with varied media, and manages to create an exhibit that is greater than the sum of its parts, it’s impressive. It’s even more impressive when four curators manage to do it all at the same time in the same building. That’s what I found while visiting the Arlington Arts Center to see the Curators Spotlight show. I was fortunate enough to start a conversation with curators Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell, Katy Scarlett, Betsy Johnson, and AnnTarantino and discuss their efforts.

Curator Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell’s Click Here confronts the internet as a space, while addressing what it means to be a female artist in the age of the internet. The voices of the eight artists (Dina Kelberman, Rachel Bone, Jenny Walton, Molly Springfield, Stephanie Williams, Michelle Herman, Lindsay McCulloch and Nancy Daly) ring clearly and concisely throughout the show.

Mike Iacovone: I’m very interested in how the internet becomes a space for artists, and how they react to it.

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell: This is a project I’ve been mulling over in my head for quite some time — a consideration of how the internet is the newest space for art and artists, but what does that mean? Specifically what does this space mean for women artists, considering how the internet largely portrays and treats women? So there are some serious questions being asked, but, not that I tried to make a “survey” show, but still wanted to think about the many sides of the internet, I had to include humor and some tongue-in-cheek perspectives as well as some thought-provoking questions. That’s my initial thought process in a nutshell, and overtime the show evolved into what it is.

I’ve written about Jenny Walton’s series before and hadn’t considered it as a female’s reaction to the internet per se, but in the context of this show and the other female artists it seems to be a reaction to the internet as a space.

KB-G: You’ve noted something that’s very important about this show. Is it distinctly feminist? Maybe not, at least in the mainstream sense. Not all of the artists identify as such or are making work specifically identified as such. And I don’t need or ask them to, in order for the show to “work.” But as a feminist myself, when I started looking at the work individually and together as a cohesive narrative I saw throughlines in the digital experiences of women that linked them all. In the case of Jenny, I’m not sure how she identifies, but knowing that dating sites put a premium on outer beauty, and her work explores the highly-curated profiles of dating site users, I think there is a sensibility about what this means as a woman, whether that’s intentional or not.

I’m surprised to read that Dina Kelberman’s GIFs are composed of found images since they seem to work so well together, can you tell me about the idea of mining the internet for materials? Initially it seems like a goldmine of endless possibilities, in that you’re likely to find exactly what you’re looking for. But how does that factor into narrowing those possibilities to fit the artist intent?

KB-G: Dina’s work is very interesting and very complex. She has an understanding of what the internet exists to be, that I don’t even think the creators of the internet have. So in “Half Full” the mined images all have the horizon line at the same point in the image, exactly (or close to it) bisecting the frame in half, so the frame is half full of water. The images she’s mined reflect different scenarios, many are people having fun, but several are of natural disaster or people experiencing trauma in some way.

She says that the images reflect our varying sensibility of optimism. But in considering the painful images, one can reflect on how we mine – or curate – our digital “self” towards “everything is great!” even if that isn’t the reality we’re experiencing. It’s also a reflection of how easy it is to seek optimism, even false optimism, on the internet, while completely ignoring the plight of others.

Is there intended in guilt in enjoying scrolling through your friend’s Caribbean album on Facebook, while floods wipe out 100s of homes in California? Maybe.

I appreciate that some of the works are more overtly humorous, like Nancy Daly’s piece #LookingForLove, but it’s a dark humor at that. She did a good job of taking something so ephemeral and creating physical objects that function so well as a metaphor.

KB-G: Yes, but still a very funny dark humor. Nancy’s piece makes the viewer laugh, feel comfortable with the rest of the subject matter, while also pointedly commenting on the discard-able, ever-changing, and fickle nature of life on the internet.

Rachel Bone

And Rachel Bone’s drawing pokes fun at the futility of online lives. Are these approaching cynical to disarm the viewer and start a dialogue? Or are they trying to prove their points by illustrating their realities for those who might not have considered the female online experience?

KB-G: I don’t think either artist intends to be cynical. I don’t like to speak for the artists I curate, but I say that with confidence. Both intend to use humor as a way to get the viewer thinking and yes, start a dialogue. Nancy is concerned with the ease in which we can just dismiss digital experiences. Just because it’s on the internet and it’s easily dismissed, does that mean that anything said and done on the internet doesn’t matter? Women and girls suffering from cyberbullying would disagree.

So she made a monument — the pinnacle of permanence — to reflect on those disregarded lives. Rachel notes that if we did half the things that we do on the internet in real life we would look utterly ridiculous. But we put a premium on the importance of digital life.

So are we essentially leading double lives? What are the implications of that? And what does it mean for women — who are often held to ridiculous standards in physical life — do the double standards seep into digital life as well?

Curator Katy Scarlett’s Let Me Look At You utilizes the work of artists Damien Davis, Andria Morales, Caitlin Rose Sweet, Allana Clarke and Aaron McIntosh to explore the body as both a subject and a material.

I think the work would be received differently if they were standing on their own, but as a whole I think it’s as much about corporeality than anything else, is that something you had in mind? For instance Aaron McIntosh’s “The Stake” feels like a visceral record of human skin that’s disarmed by the visual softness of the textiles used. It seems to invite the viewer to consider their own skin. But I know from the text that the subject is much more severe, dealing with LGBTQ discrimination and shaming, which I might not have gotten without the text due to the proximity of the other work.

Likewise Allana Clarke’s “Sugar” video puts me in a state of considering the vulnerability of the artist and her relationship to the history of sugar, but in relation to the other work again, I’m thinking more about vulnerability and relation to the body. Like Brandon Dean’s photos, which are formally attractive, and the figures are mostly obfuscated behind curtains but once I notice the figures, I am drawn into the photos and then considering myself as if I were in that space. Can you tell me the pretense to gathering these artists, and how the works are relating to each other?

Allana Clarke

Katy Scarlett: I think for me the works relate in a way that you’ve pointed out; they all display sensual elements that draw us in, whether that be visual (an attraction to nudity) or physical (tactile elements of the materials used). At the same time, though, there is a certain uncomfortability to each piece that for me directly follows that initial intrigue, and reiterates how fragile our bodies actually are.

Aaron McIntosh

KS: I definitely want the viewer to consider their own bodies and their own skin when going through the exhibition. But I also like that some of the work (like Brandon’s photos and Allana’s “Sugar” video) made you think about being in a space with another body, or made you consider the artist’s body. I wrote the initial proposal for this show pre-Donald Trump pussy grabbing atrocity. In the beginning, I was really just thinking about our own personal relationships with our bodies, how we protect ourselves, how we care for ourselves etc. After the video came out, it was a clear reiteration that we as a society do not truly understand the potential our physical actions have to inflict incredible emotional and psychological pain on others.

This seems like a very obvious statement since we live in a violent world, but it’s an obvious statement absent of collective realization and resulting awareness. To hear people on television and radio saying that they would still vote for an admitted sexual assaulter is another huge reiteration that in our current society, some bodies do not matter as much as others. Thinking about all of these things, my initial thoughts for the show expanded. I was looking at the work as a way to encourage self-reflection in viewers but also as a way to encourage compassionate consideration of other people’s bodies and body parts.

Curator Betsy Johnson’s Minding the Hand, featuring artists Fabiola Alvarez Yurcisin, Yoko K, Melissa Forkner Lesher, and Elsabe Dixon, is clearly about process and labor. When inspecting the work, it’s all meticulously assembled but also clearly hand-made. I immediately think of the hierarchy of the goods that I spend money on, or even getting a cocktail at a bar, which might take ten minutes to assemble. The craft and labor heighten the goods, and that value is heightened by the global market we now live in.

When I see this work, I immediately respect the labor maybe even more than the aesthetics. I’m sure it’s no accident that the work is also formally attractive, but for you as a curator when you were deciding on this work, how did the two ends of that weigh out? How does the commodity of the artist’s materials stand up to that?

Elsabe Dixon

Betsy Johnson: As for Minding the Hand, the title took me a long while to come to since my main curatorial objective with the show was to follow my gut and let my mind make sense of it later. The show was born out of a basic conviction that these artists belonged together. It mattered to me that this exhibition could help them recognize themselves in one another and, as an extension draw out others that had similar inclinations and experiences. For me, art is an important community-builder. As Mel exclaimed as the installation was underway, “We are all sisters!”

That’s what I wanted to give them and, I suppose, to feel myself. I think that sort of recognition of shared understanding and vision is an incredibly important part of art making and viewing that is highly underrated. There is nothing more powerful than receiving an external message that resonates to your very core. For me, the selection and placement of works was all about heightening that resonance.

The discarded VHS tape and the cicada wings, and the silk all have history in a singular sense, but they’re also historical in as much as they reference a different time. But, for me, all that is subordinate to the labor and I hope I’m not missing the point because I’m nerdy about process. How do you as the curator see these as conflicts, or is this an opportunity to juxtapose these routes?

BJ: As a museum professional who is highly aware of how hard the market can be to resist, it was also important to me at this moment to show artists that are not driven by their ability to sell what they create but, instead, are responding to very personal and idiosyncratic drives to create. As you mentioned in your question, the materials they choose often connect them through time to other people and traditions and technologies but they also help determine their process and the form that their work takes. Fabiola, for instance, weaves because that is what she feels her material (ribbons–VHS tape, audio-cassette tape, and sometimes the store-bought variety of ribbon shipped from Mexico) asks of her.

I titled the show Minding the Hand because there is something so hand-gathered and hand-wrought in all of their practices. All four artists are scavengers–Fabiola gathers ribbons and objects formally primed for weaving (nets, cages, etc), Mel gathers objects that hold personal sentimental power for her, Elsabe gathers residue of natural processes (silk from silkworms, wings from cicadas), and Yoko gathers memories, feelings, sensations in the form of the stories and sounds she collects. Through the rhythms and cycles of their collecting and assembling they coalesce these materials into potent objects that somehow, despite the obsessive aspects of their making, have the ability to calm, soothe, and restore those who experience them.

Their works stem from a power to make deeper, transhistorical, sensitive, intuitive connections to the world and this, to me, is why this is the art that we need to see right now because these are the sorts of connections that we are currently at the greatest risk of losing. We need art that reminds us that there is a very real, although often invisible, power that is generated by letting our hands lead the way.

Ann Tarantino’s SEEP, featuring artists Bonnie Levinthal, Caetlynn Booth, Rachel Farbiarz, Giulia Piera Livi, Patrick McDonough, and Rob Carter, exploring various facets of water. The work spans from earnest to dystopic and it’s interesting to jump between the pieces.

MI: Giulia Livi’s fountain acts an an almost absurdist painting perfunctorily functioning as a fountain, but then we’re presented with Patrick McDonough’s models which offer a grim premonition of the future coastline. Followed by Rob Carter’s Poppy Field (my favorite piece in the show) which is left near a window with a – “We’ll see if it lives or dies” – attitude. The notion that water ties all these pieces together is so engaging, considering how different the pieces are. You made some seemingly unrelated work relate under the auspice of water. Can you tell me about how you came up with the concept?

Ann Tarantino: I have a longstanding interest in water that ranges from the personal (from the standpoint of having grown up in Massachusetts, where one was never far from coastline, as well as nearly twenty years spent as a serious competitive swimmer) to political (in the context of resource scarcity and climate change concerns. It struck me many years ago that much of the artwork I make and like has a connection to water in some way, whether abstract or concrete. I was interested in collecting some of those things and seeing how they might work together and augment each other’s meanings.

MI: Were you thinking of the range of emotions that these pieces aim at as a hinderance, as bringing these things together would be difficult? Or was it your vision to span those varied techniques, media, and modes into one cohesive show from the beginning?

Giulia Piera Livi

AT: I was very conscious of the fact that the show had the potential to feel disparate or discontinuous if the work was not carefully chosen and installed. I looked at a huge range of work (there are so many great artists out there making such interesting work that intersects with the theme). Ultimately I chose work that I felt segued well from one piece to the next and that was all conceptually rigorous. I did think, a lot, about how it would look as a unit and it was important to me that it feel cohesive.

That said, I felt that the differences between the work were important and I did not want to minimize them. One of my goals was to get people thinking about how water is kind of a baseline for so many people in so many settings. You might not look at Rob Carter’s work (pictured at top) and think of water, but the very form of the piece is contingent on how well the piece itself is able to harness water and, in so doing, dictate its own form.

It was also important to me to think broadly about how water can be used as a formal tool (such as for Bonnie Levinthal), or act on a conceptual level (such as in Rachel Farbiarz’s work, where the water is implied). And I’m interested in the many nuances and subtleties between those approaches as well.

This year’s Curator’s Spotlight is another great show at an institution that is making a habit of hosting great shows. The artists alone would have been worth the trip, but the curators took on some provocative topics and enhanced the experience by posing grander questions to consider.

Elsabe Dixon


Author Michael Dax Iacovone is a DC based artist who works in photo, video, maps and installation.

Curators Spotlight – Main Level and Lower Level Galleries at Arlington Art Center is up through March 26, 2017.

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