Are Artists the Best Curators?

Nick van Woert, "History"
Nick van Woert, "History" (2012), white bronze and steel (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The most galvanizing room, hands down, in the current Whitney Biennial is the Forrest Bess micro-retrospective put together by sculptor Robert Gober.

And on Tuesday, in what could be a trend, another museum-quality exhibition opened, organized by another sculptor — Matthew Day Jackson’s “Science on the back end” at Hauser & Wirth.

After a disclaimer (“I am not a curator”) in the first line of the show’s press release, Jackson writes:

I merely selected the five artists for this exhibition and left to them the decision of which artworks to present. … Hauser & Wirth’s gallery in New York has five rooms, and each participating artist has been given a room to use as he or she wishes. …  My interest lies instead in the larger creative impulse that the six of us share and the way in which each one of us processes and reorders our life experience into formal strategies, according to our personal priorities.

Marc Ganzglass, "Wheel"
Marc Ganzglass, "Wheel" (2011), galvanised steel (click to enlarge)

The show retains a remarkable cohesion, given the openness of its selection process and the apparent arbitrariness of the exhibition title, “Science on the back end,” which comes from an off-the-cuff remark made by one of the artists, Marc Ganzglass, about a wheel-like object he created in 2011 (and which now hangs on the gallery’s second floor).

If Jackson is not a curator, as he professes, this reliance on chance would be his biggest disqualifier. While intuition and hunches play a part in scholarly research, throwing open a gallery’s doors to the unknown is a far cry from responsible curatorial practice.

Of course, Jackson isn’t relying on luck, but on the trust he has built over years with a cohort of artists (all born in the mid- to late-1970s) who share his aesthetic priorities and generational perspective.

He is courting failure nonetheless, which may be business as usual for alternative art scenes, but at Hauser & Wirth on East 69th Street, blocks from the Whitney, the Frick and the Met, Jackson’s high-wire act feels a lot more perilous. That most of the works have just been hauled out of the studio — twelve out of the fifteen were completed in 2012 — raises the stakes even more.

Rosy Keyser, "Ray (x-ray)"
Rosy Keyser, "Ray (x-ray)" (2012), steel, string, hemp, enamel and dye (click to enlarge)

To which Jackson, like any good artist, seems to respond with a shrug. His confidence in his collaborators allowed him to approach his curatorial task as a nerve center, facilitator and, as with Robert Gober and Forrest Bess, a passionate fan.

By taking himself out of the selection process, Jackson risked visual disjunction but engendered a zero-friction environment (no haggling over what’s in and what’s out) where the artists could breathe freely and the show could gel on its own.

The gamble paid off, especially on the first floor, where Rosy Keyser, Nick van Woert and Larry Bamburg deploy large-scale showstoppers that, in form or process, touch on the theme of “science on the back end” without divulging their rationales.

Keyser’s ravaged assemblage/paintings of string and corrugated steel engage the fierce beauty of post-industrial dereliction and the chaos of natural erosion, while van Woert’s sad and solemn “History” (2012), a tondo relief made up of hundreds of bronze-casted hand tools – from bones to hatchets to monkey wrenches – evokes the proud artisanship of our pre-industrial past.

Bamburg’s “Bone Stack #31 Shown at 60in center, Frozen” (2012) has to be seen to be believed. Inside a custom-built freezer, the artist has constructed a tower of cattle bones that is held together by an all-but-invisible coating of ice. Turn off the electricity, and the bones come tumbling down. Pick any metaphor you like.

Larry Bamburg, "Bone Stack #31 Shown at 60in center, Frozen"
Larry Bamburg, "Bone Stack #31 Shown at 60in center, Frozen" (2012), bones, bespoke display freezer

The second floor is more low-key — with Erin Shirreff’s landscape slideshow, “Lake” (2012), Jackson’s own “Nothing more than the cumulative sum of my experience” (2012), a stainless steel ruler as long as the artist is tall, and Ganzglass’s non-functional objects (“Wheel,” 2011, among others) — but just as taut and smart.

Not every curator can trust every artist to deliver the way Jackson’s did. But they did, and the art season’s that much richer because he decided to take that shot.

Nick van Woert, "History"
Nick van Woert, "History" (2012), detail
Matthew Day Jackson, "Nothing more than the cumulative sum of my experience"
Matthew Day Jackson, "Nothing more than the cumulative sum of my experience" (2012), polished, engraved stainless steel
Erin Shirreff, "Lake"
Erin Shirreff, "Lake" (2012), color video, silent
Rosy Keyser, "Eve’s First Confusion Between Penises and Snakes"
Rosy Keyser, "Eve’s First Confusion Between Penises and Snakes" (2012), detail; string, sawdust, wood, enamel, dye and snakeskin

Science on the back end. Artists selected by Matthew Day Jackson continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 16, 2012.

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