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.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

6 replies on “Are Artists the Best Curators?”

  1. I like your take on the show. Risking a lack of cohesion makes a more interesting show than many overly curated shows that tie the pieces too closely around one concept. 

  2. Fine Review of a show but shouldn’t the headline read “Jackson Puts Together a Show” or something (as you say, he doesn’t call himself the curator)? Where are you talking about artists being better curators?

    1. The title is deliberately provocative, and so it is partly irresponsible and partly in earnest.  And like any question about the best of anything, it cannot be satisfactorily answered.

      However, there are points that bear discussing. Jackson claims that he is not a curator, but he is in fact curating with his intuition, and the results are impressive.

      While bona fide curators, such as the ones behind the Renaissance portraits show at the Met or de Kooning at MoMA — two of the finest museum exhibitions of the past year — can work wonders with historical material, I honestly wonder if there is a difference when it comes to living art.

      The majority of the galleries and alternative spaces in Williamsburg, Bushwick and Ridgewood are artist-run, which is the essence of their vitality.  The art is presented in the same spirit of risk with which it was made.  Whether the same can be said about much of what we see at the New Museum or the Whitney Biennial is open to debate.

      1. Thanks
        for the response Thomas. I think there is a clear difference when it
        comes to “living” art (if you mean working artists), which means that there should be a difference
        when we talk about curators who aren’t working in museums. So, your
        point about those neighborhoods is well taken, but let’s not forget to
        mention that there are non-traditional curators – who are not artists –
        who are contributing in these neighborhoods as well (I am admittedly
        speaking of myself, but I know there are others). So, the “artist-run”
        label is not always the most appropriate way to talk about that scene (artists-as-gallery directors?).
        Talking about it in as “artists” vs. “curators” in that context only
        promotes the same traditional/academic view of what a “curator” and
        “artist” are. As you say, I think there’s much more discuss here.

  3. Sounds like he helped put the show together in the best way. Improvisation. I would like to get to see this show, but being in Ohio…I cannot. I have always felt artists made for great show directors, because they have a deeper connection with the work they admire.

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