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Artists Weigh in as Curators of the Barge Project

Judgement days

Want to see some artists sweat? Metaphorically, anyway. Drop in to one of the public curatorial sessions at the Burchfield Penney when the artists of the barge project select or reject works other artists have submitted for inclusion in the barge model in the gallery and the actual barge slated to travel the canal and Hudson River to New York next summer.

One of the things the artists promised as part of the project was to take people “behind the scenes” to observe how an art exhibit is created, including the selection of work to be included, the nitty-gritty of curation. And since it was their exhibit, they are the curators, a function not normally or necessarily in the job description of artist, and maybe a little bit more than some of them bargained for. Especially the selection of work—which implies some rejection of work—in public. Which is almost never done. Which is why these artists—but not professional curators—wanted to do it.

“I hate it,” A.J. Fries said of the experience after one of the public sessions. Fries is one of the more outspoken of the artist/curators. More willing to say he just doesn’t like some piece, and why, even in front of the artist who made it. But doesn’t seem to enjoy the process one bit.

Observers of the public curatorial process, including submitting artists, are permitted and encouraged to speak their mind about the pieces under scrutiny. But then just the project artists get to vote. Yea or nay.

A rule of thumb and word to the wise to submitting artists, based on empirical observation: you’re more likely to get a yes vote if you show up at the judging. Though of course no guarantee.

Much prefatory talk to the judging (frequently reprised amidst the actual judging, regarding works likely facing a nay vote, that is, if the submitting artist is present) about how judging art is extremely subjective. And each of the judges has his or her idiosyncratic biases and predilections, so they’re extremely fallible. Plus there are all sorts of unexpressed background considerations, about what kind of art is needed for the barge, partly based on what kind of art has already been accepted, or will be accepted, and space limitations, and space mandates. And anyway, in submitting a work for judging, you already get to have it on display in the Burchfield Penney for two weeks, so it’s already part of a Burchfield Penney exhibit, and already part of the barge project (sort of). And as an artist, you can put all of this stuff on your résumé.

Individual artists about to vote “no” explain how their particular artistic orientation, based on their own education and practice—that they’re basically conceptual artists, say, and just not that into traditional representational painting—prevents them from any real empathy with and appreciation of—something like that—the piece under consideration. Other times the training or aesthetic orientation one of the team members will save a piece, as when team leader Dietrich Olivier Delrieu-Schulze explains that a work that other participants in the judging event have questioned how it is art at all is a UB Media Studies project artifact, so legitimate.

And so Mark McLaughlin’s excellent pinhole camera photo of a cargo ship in dock gets a yes vote. And Roberta Eisenhart’s superb Chinese traditional art ink on rice paper drawing/painting of bamboo stalks and leaves gets a no vote. (Usually the artist’s presence and verbal explanation about the submitted work helps toward acceptance of the work. Maybe in Eisenhart’s case her presence and explanation were a mistake. She told of how years ago she fell in love with traditional Chinese art, and spent a lifetime learning authentic technique, the ink, the rice paper, the delicate process. None of the artist/curators seemed to think the piece wasn’t exquisite, but some seemed to have a problem with it that it was too Chinese. Not just that, but that Eisenhart wasn’t.)

The one professional curator in the group is Scott Propeak, whose day job is chief curator at the Burchfield Penney, but who is also a regular artist participant in the barge project. So he’s used to choosing and rejecting artworks. But not in public. And doesn’t seem to find the public aspect—telling nice people no—any more enjoyable than any of the other artist/curators.

The public curatorial sessions are on alternate Thursday evenings, 6 p.m., in the Burchfield Penney main gallery. One tonight (September 11) and two more to come (September 25 and October 9). The submitted works for judging at a given curatorial session are displayed for two weeks prior to the judging, along the wall, beside the barge.

The barge project in-gallery exhibit continues through October 19.

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