I recently curated an art show at Number 35 Gallery on the Lower East Side. I am admittedly a frequent and outspoken critique of the curatorial process. I’m the first one to harp on a curator, perhaps, admittedly, to the discredit of what is often times totally great artwork. I would feel hypocritical if I didn’t address the process myself. Criticism is welcome, please tell me how to do it better, I’d love that.
Anyway, the exhibition, Subliminal Sunlight was the result of a year of looking at, talking and thinking about what the fuck it means to be an abstract painter.
Let me start at the beginning, I believe in the power of sculpture and painting to transmute the boring everyday fibers of life into something more. I understand that this makes me a bit of a sap, one of the annoying purist believer types. I guess I don’t care. I still think, after all these years, in the middle of our Google-wallet-using, fast-paced, been-there-done-that contemporary life, that art and music can reach through the giant barriers that we erect and transport us somewhere new and special.
As a relatively young writer and art interested individual, I spend my time trying to find my way among the various social and artistic currents that run willy nilly through the city. As a newcomer to this world several years ago I often found myself in a sort of cultural pingpong match between the ultra cool, glossy and jaded work in galleries in Chelsea, and the musty confines of dead white art in museums uptown. There are plenty of painters that continue to paint like it’s 1950, I won’t argue with you there. Unfortunately, without taking a step out of the room, you don’t get rid of the dust and cobwebs. I won’t even try to touch on the history of painting, or what the last 40 years has meant to it. My curatorial attempt (as hold’s true with this bit of writing) was simply my subjective stab at trying to come to grips with this world.
Please forgive me while I quote my own press release:
… Like it or not, my favorite painters from the 1940s are all surrounded by velvet ropes. What gives abstraction its cultural staying power? Instability. Cultures shift and adapt, new generations spell out similar words with new alphabets. In this spirit, Subliminal Sunlight presents a series of works by Chris Mendoza, Maya Hayuk, Hisham Bharoocha, Morgan Blair and Mark Warren Jacques. Though the five come from a variety of backgrounds, they share subculture and sensitivity. Whether music, skateboarding, graffiti, African geometric prints or mid-century abstract painting, their variety of influences emphasize an outspoken, down-to-earth creativity.Subliminal Sunlight is about our need to understand beauty that exists beyond form. It is about the happiness we find in the colorful moments in paintings and in life.
So my desire to curate this exhibition was linked as much to my need to answer my own questions about how to reconcile past and present, theory and reality as it was anything else. The result, I think was an answer I hadn’t intended. Throughout the process I have had an idea about counter culture, psychedelic good vibes, neon colors and the abstract and sublime. I had envisioned a sort of mash up of modernism, imbued with street smarts and armed with lasers. Fortunately for me, and for everyone else, I think the real substance came not in my attempts to group and generalize five artists, but in their unexpected differences.
Plant a tree in a wooden box to protect it from the weather, eventually its roots will burrow through and out into the soil. I spent two nights with Hisham Akira Bharoocha and Chris Mendoza as they constructed their respective installations for the show. It was always my desire to show how a dialogue about spirituality or the sublime can re-enter the art world through alternative cultures like hip hop or punk, cultures that cut their teeth decrying the values of the intellectual and financial class elites (those chiefly responsible for the promotion of Modernism). What I ended up with was a first-hand view of how the creative process reveals in everyone, not one simple single truth, but a complex array of forces. Through Hisham, I felt not the force of alternative music (though those influences are there) but the focus and force of will that one might associate with a childhood growing up in Japan. Chris, for all of his free styling and hip hop clowning, operates with the graceful precision of an architect (like his father before him).
I am reminded that the forces I wanted to define are all around us. Like sunlight they are not as simple as they first seem, but draw strength from their complex refractions. Rather than a definition or an answer, I thinkSubliminal Sunlight ended up a kind of prism, one little stab at what is possible. The urge to define, and substantiate is probably the most overrated part of Western society. Here is my pledge to revel in the mystery.
Did this exhibition turn out the way I intended? I don’t even know how to think about that anymore. What I was lucky to have is a group of artists willing to trust me, a backbone of creative individuals who could collaborate and meld. After this experience, I think the best thing a curator can do is to mediate and mediate, but intervene as little as possible. My success, if at all, was the ability to not do my job. In an art world where there are curatorial superstars — my recent personal experiences make me wonder why?
Subliminal Sunlight runs at Number 35 Gallery (141 Attorney Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until February 12.