CAMH’s Curator of It is what it is. Or is it? Talks Readymades – and Houston
Marcel Duchamp’s readymades are an unmistakably radical gesture in the history of modern art. First produced in 1913, the readymades were, for the artist, “a form of denying the possibility of defining art.” Today, the readymade has been so integrated into artistic strategy and discourse that either object or idea can be a readymade. Recuperating the radicality of Duchamp’s gesture has much to do with the exhibit It is what it is. Or is it? (through July 29th), at Contemporary Art Museum Houston. CAMH curator Dean Daderko, organized the exhibition as his first project for CAMH.
If you define “readymade” as something that is common and familiar, the title of your show (It is what it is. Or is it?) itself fits that description, but you’ve also recontextualized the phrase. Many of the works in the exhibition also create a dilemma for the viewer in that they don’t offer meaning very easily. For instance, in Fayçal Baghriche’s Envelopments — 26 red flags mounted on the wall and wrapped around their respective flagpoles — we see the commonality of color, but the flags are actually from 26 different countries. Is a deliberate confounding of immediate understanding part of the idea of the readymade?
In thinking about the show, my research brought me to inspired words by Gertrude Stein: “A family likeness pleases when there is a cessation of resemblances.” While initial impressions are what we go on, it is the specific qualities of an object or situation that allow us to go deeper, past superficial resemblances to unique content that differentiates one object from others that share similar appearances. And I don’t think this is about confounding understanding exactly, since the desire is to clearly communicate the significance of specific differences, bt these particularities are quite often subtle, as you’ve recognized in the example of Baghriche’s Envelopments. For Duchamp, the rejection of solely retinal work bolsters a relationship to the conceptual, to ideas. In much of the work with readymades being done today, these ideological footings root the work firmly in the present. Even if works are older, we are assessing their significance now.
Stein was speaking poetically, but if we parse her phrase, we can understand it to mean that sameness is less pleasing than unique particularities, and these differences (as you point out) can be subtle. Still, Duchamp might be cursed by contemporary viewers who grumble about having to read the wall text to get the point! As you mention, Duchamp scorned the “retinal,” but you include paintings in the exhibition, and a beautiful example of the constructed family likeness is the group of paintings by Rachel Hecker, Jesus #1 (Viggo Mortensen/ Lord of the Rings), Jesus #2 (David Gilmour/ Pink Floyd), and Jesus #8 (David Axell/ JosephAbboud Ad) in which she has painted celebrities as Jesus. Clichéd image as readymade, which opens up a whole different branch of the family tree, as it were.
Though Duchamp shunned the retinal, his reaction came in the wake of Modernism’s formalism. Now, with the dominance of digital media, images have become material facts in a new way. Think about how, when seeing something interesting, pulling out a camera phone to snap a picture has become an instantaneous reflex. We carry images around with us, and scroll through them. Though the inclusion of representational painting may challenge the notion of what the readymade is, I wanted to see what they would bring to this dialogue.
When I spoke with Catherine Murphy about including her work in the exhibition, she was very enthusiastic and told me that she always thought of herself as a conceptual painter, and that encouraged me. Her decisions about what images to paint are as important as how she executes them, and their quotidian subjects – two black plastic trash bags tossed out in the snow in Trash Bags (1996), for instance – allow for viewers to notice details in ways that looking at the actual scene might not. And with Rachel Hecker’s Jesus series, the relationship to the readymade is two-fold: there is the nearly immediate recognition of the figure of Christ, and the moment when one realizes that Hecker has created these portraits of Jesus by transforming images of Hollywood actors, rock stars, and models.
Right, we’ve become so sophisticated about imagery that we can make those connections. Another aspect of Duchamp’s work is the playfulness, and this is a strong theme in your exhibition as well. In some cases, it’s a wink to the educated viewer, as in Jamie Isenstein’s “Smoking Pipe,” a reference to Magritte’s painting, but also a funny sight gag, as smoke curls from the pipe.
I’m glad you appreciate the humor, Donna. It’s definitely there in Jamie’s work, alongside her nod to ‘La trahison des images’ (of ‘ceci n’est pas un pipe’ fame) and in the vaudevillian turn of Daphne Fitzpatrick’s sculptures as well. Even though there’s a lot of serious thought going on, it doesn’t mean we can’t have fun!
You came from an artist background. How did you get interested in curating?
I received my BFA in Sculpture from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.My background differs from that of most curators, who focus on art history. At Tyler, I was very active in organizing group shows with friends – we created exhibitions after-hours at a Kinko’s, in abandoned buildings, in empty storefronts that we’d get donated for short periods, and even in the back of a U-Haul truck, so I found it inspiring. I was more interested in the energy I could develop around these kinds of collaborative creative projects, and less in sustaining a studio practice of my own, so I directed my work in this direction. I never felt like I was abandoning an artistic practice because organizing exhibitions felt inherently creative, though I hesitate to speak about what I do as art per se. What I do is dependent on other peoples’ artwork. My background as a maker has helped to give me a fairly fluid M.O. as a curator, because I identify with what it is to physically and mentally create something. So, I’m much less interested in walking into an artist’s studio and choosing what works I want for a particular exhibition, and much more engaged by developing a dialogue that delves into that artist’s history and the trajectory of their work. And I get to do this in public, which adds a bit of invigorating risk to the equation.
What brought you to Houston?
I was excited to come to Houston because I have a great deal of respect for my colleagues – (CAMH’s) Director, Bill Arning was someone I knew from New York, at White Columns. And Valerie Cassel-Oliver, CAMH’s Senior Curator, has done innovative and important programming here at CAMH for some time. Her exhibitions like Double Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art and the upcoming Radical Presence, which will consider the contributions of artists of color to the performance field, were being made before curatorial and institutional conversations about diversity were common.
Houston also has an incredible history of cultural philanthropy (the Menil is a world-class example of this dedication to art and progressive ideas), and these days are no different. Houston still values and supports individual vision in substantive ways. We’ve also got an extremely vital community of artists, galleries, and programs of study, and it’s great making exhibitions in this context.
Talk about the space you have to work with.
When I had an opportunity to come here and see our space, which designed by Gunnar Birkerts in 1973, I was even more enthusiastic; it’s a large, diamond-shaped parallelogram with high ceilings and an open plan – so not a typical white cube. It’s dynamic and flexible, and it’s great to have a space that one can respond to.