Interviews

Meet the NYC Art Community: Ashley James on Working in a Field That “Holds Infinite Possibility”

An interview series spotlighting New York’s creative community. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

Ashley James (all images courtesy Ashley James; photo by Abigail Lapin Dardashti)

Growing up in New York, you get used to seeing people come and go. As much as I love my hometown, I acknowledge that it’s not always an easy city to live in. Making ends meet is a delicate dance I’ve only recently gotten the hang of, and it can be tough to carve out a place for yourself, no matter how you define that, but especially if you’re an artist or administrator, a writer or critic, a curator or producer.

All of that being said, New York is also a place like nowhere else, largely due to its vibrant and incredibly resilient arts community (we see you, artist slash DJ slash barista friends). It’s a place where the word “showtime” takes on an entirely new meaning, where a chance encounter at a bar can bring you face-to-face with your art world hero — precisely because New York is a place where a broad spectrum of arts and culture feels within reach.

Tricky as it can be to strike that mythical work/life balance here (holler if you’re the unicorn that’s figured it out), New York remains a place where the right to continue to call this city home feels worth fighting for. To highlight some of the exciting work being done here, I’ve put together the interview series Meet the NYC Art Community. While by no means comprehensive, it hopes to spotlight some of the complexities of this city, and the reasons why it remains a place many artists and art workers alike are proud to call home.

To kick off the series, I interviewed Ashley James, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. James’s work merges curatorial practice with an academic background rooted in African American studies, English literature, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Prior to joining the Guggenheim, James served as Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where she was the lead curator for the museum’s presentation of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (2018–19), organized Eric N. Mack: Lemme walk across the room (2019), and is co-curating the forthcoming John Edmonds: A Sidelong Glance (2020) there. A dedicated writer and researcher, James has published widely and held positions at MoMA, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Yale University Art Gallery. She’s currently wrapping up work on a PhD in English literature, African American Studies, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies from Yale University. Here are some of her thoughts on art, her practice, and how she relates to this city.

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Installation view of  Between edge and interior at Untitled Art Fair, Miami (2019), curated by Ashley James. Featuring Pratt Institute alumni “whose works explore formal concerns of borders, margins, perceptual depth, recesses, and other markers of relational space…” the exhibition included William T. Williams (BFA ‘66), Alanna Fields (MFA’19), Clare Grill (MFA’05), Devin B. Johnson (MFA’19), Matt Kleberg (MFA’15), Yesuk Seo (MFA’16), and Jason Stopa (MFA’10).

Where do you consider home?

I consider both New York and Southern California, where my parents and brother live, home. As I grow older I feel that way more and more about Jamaica, too, which is where both sides of my family are from.

What brought you to New York/what has made you stay?

I moved to New York about 15 years ago to attend Columbia for undergrad, and I’ve mostly been on the east coast ever since. What keeps me here is art and people.

Tell me about your first memory of art.

Truly difficult to say … perhaps the decorative logic of my grandmother’s house is my first clear memory of aesthetics. In terms of specific artists, coming from California, I actually have strong early associations with the painter Wayne Thiebaud! Love his decadent paintings on a formal and conceptual level, but also just feel a strong emotional tie through this day. The landscapes make me homesick in ways few things besides my actual family can.

How would you describe your practice?

I love researching artists and talking to artists, and then drawing connections from what I learn. I love ideas, and artists are my favorite theorists because they (often) translate ideas into the visual, and/or the visual itself is the idea. It’s the greatest feeling to then help bring these ideas to the public, and I feel the most accomplished when I know both audience and artist feel good about what they’ve seen.

Installation view of  Between edge and interior at Untitled Art Fair, Miami (2019), curated by Ashley James

What are you working on currently?

Always working on a few things! Though at different stages … Very happy to be co-curating artist John Edmond’s solo exhibition A Sidelong Glance, with Drew Sawyer. John is one of the most talented photographers working today and this show brings together his photographic portraits and still lifes of Central and West African sculptures, some of which are posed alongside friends and acquaintances. They open up a rich dialogue around black diaspora, modernism, art history, possession, institutionality, and more, so I’m really looking forward to that being on view. Also excited about working on the Hugo Boss Prize with Katherine Brinson. This year’s finalists, Nairy Baghramian, Kevin Beasley, Deana Lawson, Elias Sime, Cecilia Vicuña and Adrián Villar Rojas, are all excellent.

Creatively speaking, what keeps you up at night and what makes you get out of bed in the morning?

Very much depends on what I’m working on in the moment, but in a general sense, I feel lucky to work and think within a field that by definition holds infinite possibility. I HATE being bored, and tend to wilt in the face of convention and repetition. I could read from morning to night for the rest of my life and just barely scratch the surface of (even modest subsets of) histories of artistic production – and then of course there is all that is being made right now. The fact of that immensity is humbling, thrilling, and comforting even.

What are you reading currently?

I just finished my dissertation which was, for a long while, occupying a great deal of my mental space, so I am super excited to be dipping back in to “recreational” reading, and have bought a ton of poetry books (which is my favorite kind of literature). Also quite excited to deep dive into Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies. And while I have this platform, I urge everyone to read Amiri Baraka’s Home: Social Essays, a collection I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

Installation view of  Between edge and interior at Untitled Art Fair, Miami (2019), curated by Ashley James

What is your favorite way of experiencing art?

I like going to museums with people, but with the understanding that we can take our own paths and proceed at our own paces. That to me feels both communal and open.

Favorite exhibition you’ve seen in the last year?

Too hard! One show I loved recently was MoMA’s Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window, curated by Esther Adler [with Ana Torok and Nectar Knuckles]. Each print was its own intricate wonder, such a feat of imagination and skill. I love that Betye Saar takes on really vexed, difficult histories and engages multiple art historical traditions and cosmologies. It’s complex, generous, genius work.

In the creative circles you’re part of, what questions do you want to see more people asking?

That’s a great question. I don’t know anyone right now who isn’t asking how is it that we’re going to be supporting each other both in this short and long term, and that, to me is the right and most urgent question.

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