A few years ago, the English artist David Hensel submitted a sculpted head on a stone plinth and wood support to a juried exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Having received a letter of acceptance, he naturally looked forward to seeing his work in such an august setting. When he arrived at the reception, all he saw was the support with no head in sight. Why? Well, it seems that the head had separated from the support during transit and each had been judged as a separate submission.
At times artists get to see all the submissions prior to a juror’s call, then scratch their heads when they see what was chosen to hang on the walls. With time, most artists get used to unexpected juror decisions, and Mr. Hensel’s experience could only have added to his jury selection learning curve. Being a curator and selecting is, after all, an art in itself; a creative process of orchestrating individual art works to end up as visual music– hopefully.
Among the better practitioners of this art is Shana Nys Dambrot, a remarkable peripatetic curator, reviewer, author, and managing editor of Flavorpil.com. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see the results of her curator skills at a show she had juried, titled “The Bigger Picture Show” at Edgar Varela Fine Arts (EVFA) which shares exhibition space at the Bert Green Gallery in downtown L.A. Dambrot, with the help of Edgar Varela, selected eight artists for this exhibit.
She chose each artist based on her familiarity of his or her previous artwork. The stipulations came with few strings attached; they had three months to make and present one piece for hanging, but (here’s the catch) the work had to be big, the bigger the better. Dambrot’s thinking went like this: The current poor art market coupled with the summer gallery doldrums (difficult even for small works of art to sell) could be a wonderful time for artists to put away concerns of profit and simply concentrate on the making of really big stuff. The worry would rest on Dambrot’s shoulders since she would see the works only when each artist brought their completed art into the Gallery. In other words, she was making a decision based on faith. Fortunately, she was well rewarded. The result? A rather gutsy show put together by a rather gutsy juror. Unfortunately, space does not permit me to do justice to the work of eight artists but suffice it to say they were well worth seeing. These “magnificent” eight are Rick Robinson, Kim Abeles, Max Presneill, Jennifer Wolf, Benjamin Pezzillo, Terrel Moore, Britt Ehringer, and Roman Bluem.
For me, however, this exhibit provided a chance to explore at least one curator’s mind and I was not going to let this opportunity slip by. All right, I’ll admit that Dambrot’s personality, a fusion of incredible mental focus and speed coupled with a deep sensitivity, had already charmed me way before I saw her curated show, but these very qualities comprise the tool kit she brings to her curatorial decision-making. I also knew that with Dambrot, I would get candid and honest answers to whatever interrogatories I tossed out.
Thus over lunch at “The Nickel Diner” downtown, I discovered that for her, being a curator is not just another exercise in reportage, but a way to teach, to expose, and to create dialogue about art. Being extensively and rigorously trained in the field of art history at Vassar and reinforced by her vast experience writing about art, she possesses an authoritative voice sans ambivalence. But don’t be fooled, that voice is without a need to be didactic, demagogic, or pedantic. To her, this “authority” is not considered a final voice but rather an effort to provide a jumping off place for art discussions. As she put it, “I think and see, what do you think and see?” She can respect and dispute with anyone who takes a differing stand because, again, it’s all about dialoguing.
As a non-artist, Dambrot understands that her authority has a certain degree of limitations. To fill this gap she sometimes has artists accompany her on her curatorial rounds (often the marvelous artist Jennifer Wolf) because she understands that an artist’s eye may see things that she might miss and she has enough respect for artists to seek their feedback. I have now offered Dambrot my own artist’s eyes as a backup should Jennifer Wolf be too busy to accompany her– I have no shame!
When you read a Dambrot review, timid is not the word you tend to come up with: For sure, the emperor’s clothing status will be in the article. She does not entertain the notion that anything can be considered art, and she made it perfectly clear to me that “There is a bottom line where something is good and something is bad.” She mentioned that the currently shown work of Dennis Hopper would be an example of art not meeting her threshold, (he doesn’t meet mine either) adding that “…at some time food is bad and it has to be admitted, at times art is bad.” For Dambrot, critiquing is far less a matter of splitting philosophical hairs over axiological issues and far more the making of honest aesthetic calls. With great passion she told me she worries that our current society has swung too far to the point where critics feel a need to be politically correct and that there is now a real need for some sort of paradigm: Put in my own words, the art woof needs a sturdy art warp!
One last issue that arose as the dishes were being unobtrusively removed from our table was how difficult it was for a critic not to hurt, alienate, or anger admired artists who for one reason or another were not juried into a show. So I asked her hypothetically, if you had to have chosen only one of the eight artists in your current show, which artist would still be standing? Her answer came without hesitation: No, I’m not going to name the artist because I’m just making a point. Translated into juror speak, Dambrot would have then made one artist happy and seven unhappy. Fortunately or unfortunately, someone has to do this sort of dirty work. Shana Nys Dambrot not only does it but also does it well!