Santa Fe Community College Visual Arts Gallery
6401 Richards Avenue, Santa Fe
"It could have been a train wreck." That's what John Boyce, one of the three sculpture instructors at the Community College who conceived of and executed this exhibition, had to say about imagining how the whole thing would come together-or not.
Now, I'm a big fan, in theory at least, of artist-curated exhibitions. I am also a big fan of grassroots democracy, the basic principles of anarchy, and loving my neighbor. However, those concepts haven't often reached their highest manifestation in this world of ours. So, despite my principles, I remain skeptical of populist, collaborative ventures, and find that there is something to be said for the role of the curator as a sort of benevolent dictator, even though, within the hierarchically inclined institution of art, the curator can come across as the voice of authority rather than the handmaiden of aesthetics. Despite their best intentions, curators are usually art historians (in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I, too, am an art historian) practicing within an atmosphere of one-upmanship, and as it puts together exhibitions of real things in real time and space. Facing this concern may cause joyful anticipation or looming dread, or a bit of both, but it should be transacted with a unified vision based on intellectual and aesthetic curiosity. This kind of singularity need not reflect one-dimensionality-though it often does in museums and especially in galleries, where the vision pretty much runs along commercial interests.
A good curator, in my opinion, puts together a show based on his or her
willingness to A: ask a great question, and B: provide art that suggests intriguing variations on that question, rather than one pat answer. Boyce, with Jack Slentz and Erika Wanenmacher, did just those things. Which is rather amazing, when you consider the exponential array of possible directions this flow chart of a show might have gone.
Here's how it worked: each instructor picked three artists based on the "artistic relationship" (according to the curatorial statement) of their choice. Slentz's set focused on the artist as worker-thus he wound up choosing six artists: three sets of two artists each. In each set, one artist works for the other. Let me spell it out. Greg Joubert works for John Geldersma and makes his own art as well. Ditto for Kim Hargrove with Peter Joseph, and Elissa Beaton with Connie Mississippi. Got it? Next, Wanenmacher's theme was family. Her set consisted of a father, Pat Simpson; a mother, Roxanne Swentzell; and their daughter, Rose Simpson. And Boyce was interested in students, but not your typical first-year types. These were three professional artists, each of whom had taken a class with Boyce, and from whom he felt he had learned as much as he had taught. Boyce's set consisted of Celia Rumsey, Laird Hovland, and Susan York. Like he said, with these assorted relationships, it could've been a real train wreck.
I witnessed no wreckage, just the harmony of curatorial and artistic conviction. I have always been mad for Pat Simpson's elegant and mysterious freestanding steel boats. They looked great against Geldersma's majestic wood totems, which were, in turn, terrific with Mississippi's laminated plywood pieces. The connections were unaffectedly obvious. Swentzell's and Rose Simpson's clay works held their own against the other mostly nonfigurative works-mischievous sentinels of the artist as self, especially in Simpson's Hang, in which clay figures cling, monkey-like, to a woven-twine hoop. Rumsey's works in the language of medical pathology-marvelously compelling because they do more hinting than illustrating-were mediated by the simple beauty of York's graphite pieces. Joseph's video, Flights of Failure, was highly sculptural, with bisected stealth jets appearing and disappearing against a New Mexico landscape. Beaton's impressive works reminded me of Ken Price-and her ceramic blobs did double-duty as objects and as concepts, allowing for an ebb and flow between them and their fellow artworks. These organic forms worked well with the Swentzell and Simpson clay pieces, yet as abstracted vessels they connected with the rather spare vision of this show as a sculptural installation. Leave it to sculptors to intuit negative space when planning an exhibition. Mostly vertically oriented, the experience of walking through the show was like being in a momentarily still fairy-tale forest-delightful and just a little bit shivery, because it turned out so right when it all could have been so wrong.