They Knew What They Wanted

This year, there has been a laundry list of artist curated group shows, from David Salle’s exhibition, Your History is not our History, at Haunch of Venison, to Jeff Koon’s Skin Fruit at the New Museum and the upcoming Walead Beshty curated show, Picture Industry (Goodbye to All That), at Regen Projects. Each exhibition has its hits and misses in terms of content, style and arrangement, but what is more interesting out of this trend is how each of these exhibitions question of the role of the artist versus that of the curator. The art world has consistently defined and broken the roles held within it, yet each time one of these artists assumes the role of curator, one can’t help but to take the opportunity to compare their decisions as an artist to their decisions as a curator.

Riding on the heels of this trend, four San Francisco galleries — John Berggruen Gallery, Fraenkel Gallery, Ratio 3 and Altman Siegel Gallery — turn over their spaces to four of their represented artists to mine their backrooms to create a collaborative exhibition.  Titled They Knew What They Wanted, this exhibition is comprised of four separate group exhibitions out of the same collection. In a similar spirit, DailyServing has invited four of our San Francisco writers to use their perspectives to discuss each of the exhibitions.

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Shannon Ebner at Altman Siegel Gallery written by Julie Henson

Lee Friedlander, Egypt (1983), Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery

Among the exhibitions included in this collaboration, Shannon Ebner‘s curated project at Altman Siegel Gallery offers a nice mix of investigation and understanding. Basing her choices on work that “express their existence outside the locality of time and place,” the end result is a collection of work full of mystery and object-hood. Each work is disembodied from its individual history and is reduced to abstract physicality and strange, disconnected environments.

Installation View, Altman Siegel Gallery

Many of the works in this exhibition, like Lee Friedlander’s Egypt, quickly lose their context and dissolve into an exploration of time and timelessness. Friedlander’s photo becomes cold and detached in the context of the gallery. Hidden distantly behind Lutz Bacher’s strangely displaced, object living in the middle of the space, Sol Lewitt’s Untitled (2004) and Ed Ruscha’s Unit, give small, intimate spaces for an investigation into questions of objects and textures, flatness and environment.  The exhibition successfully reflects the elements within each piece, allowing the viewer to engage each unit separately rather than depending on a collection or historical context to inform the work. On first introduction, the space seems distant and emptied, but on further investigation, the parts really do become greater than the whole.

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Robert Bechtle at John Bergguren Gallery written by Seth Curcio

Richard Misrach, Golden Gate Bridge, 3.18.00, 4:00 pm, 2000 / Chromogenic print 20 x 24"

Predominantly a photo-realist artist, Robert Bechtle took the role of curator to participate in the exhibition They Knew What They Wanted at John Berggruen Gallery. Clearly approaching the role of curator as an artist, Bechtle selected a collection of works that operate as an extension of his own artistic practice. The most obvious unifying concept within the exhibition is form in space, manifest mostly as object in landscape. However, Bechtle has stated that the main instinct driving his selections are an exploration of the mundane in everyday life, or what the press release states as the “formality of the ordinary.”

Straight photographic works by artists Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander and Richard Misrach sit in proximity to the constructed images of artist Gregory Crewdson and Miriam Bohm. Prints of non-descriptive figures sitting by a suburban pool by artist Isca Greenfield-Sanders fall into a rather easy dialogue with Paul Wonner‘s acrylic paintings of figures in a park.

Mitzi Pederson, Untitled, 2009 Wood, silver leaf, string, and bells 127 x 11 1/2 x 2 1/2"

The exhibition exists without many surprises or profound connections, but is interestingly interrupted through the work of sculptor Mitzi Perterson and the painter Garth Weiser. The inclusion of Peterson and Weiser complicates the exhibition through abstraction. These two artists’ work are reductive and formal, but continue to engage the greater exhibition in terms of both landscape and the mundane, adding new dimension to the exhibition and requiring the viewer to actually work to extract content through context.

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Katy Grannan at Fraenkel Gallery written by Bean Gilsdorf

Installation view of Fraenkel Gallery, curated by Katy Grannan.

Katy Grannan curates a fairly straightforward exhibition of portraiture at Fraenkel Gallery, and the work in each of the three rooms implies a connection to be made or a correspondence to be understood.  In the first room, the viewer encounters Barry McGee’s Mixed Media in Fifty-Two Elements (2010), a large aggregation of framed patterns and portraits of young men tagging walls.  Frantic and almost imposing, it’s a good start to the show but is misleading as far as what’s to come, as the rest of the exhibition is much more subdued.  Across the room, Grannan has installed a collection of small, black and white “photographer unknown” portraits.  Echoing the shape of Elements, these are arranged in an oval on the wall and invite the viewer to compare the anonymity of their makers to the young men compelled to brand, tag, mark, or initial public surfaces with their monikers.

Installation view of Fraenkel Gallery, curated by Katy Grannan.

The second room contains, among other works, N.Y.C. (2006), twelve photographs of backstage scenes of fashion models by photographer Lee Friedlander.  In the opposite corner is a life-sized sculpted human figure with no head, Manuel Neri’s Untitled Standing Figure (1957).  It’s as if Grannan wants the viewer to consider the form that is all face (the model) and the faceless form (the sculpture).  The two works make for a kind of mirror gesture, conceptually reversing what makes them meaningful.  Although these two pieces might have been moved closer, the distance allows for a connection that is less facile.

In spite of the interesting juxtapositions of the first two rooms, the exhibition flattens out in the final room of the gallery.  Among more portraits is a tight grouping of animal-themed images by Charlie Harper, Peter Hujar, Garry Winogrand, Will Rogan and William Wiley.  On the adjacent wall is a portrait done by Ms. Grannan herself (Anonymous, Los Angeles (2008)).  Here, it’s difficult to discern what correlation the curator wants us to find.

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Jordan Kantor at Ratio 3 written by Aimée Reed

“They Knew What They Wanted,” Installation View 2010, Ratio 3 Gallery, San Francisco

By far the most interesting of these four is Jordan Kantor’s installation at Ratio 3 Gallery in the Mission. Kantor’s approach, unlike the other three, was to keep the drive simple: to “hang a show from what [he] found.” In his grouping, you will find an impressive diptych of ballpoint pen on paper by Alighiero Boetti; a Chromogenic color print of broken glass from Sara VanDerBeek; and a sculptural piece from Rachel Whiteread made up of four separate pieces of stainless steel. Even more noteworthy is Kantor’s selection of photographs, the dates ranging from 1887 to 2009. There seems to be no real rhyme or reason as to why Kantor selected each photograph beyond the fact that they create a cohesive aesthetic experience.

Alighiero Boetti, "Centri di Pensiero", 1978, Ballpoint pen on paper; diptych, 40.75 x 28.75" each, Image courtesy of Ratio 3 Gallery, San Francisco

This seems to be the point of Kantor’s entire directive. His professional background consists of time spent in the curatorial department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and one can’t help but notice that it must have been time well spent. Curators today seem prone to overtly themed exhibitions in a bid to justify their existence, yet, with Kantor’s contribution to They Knew What They Wanted, he reminds the viewing audience that simply loving the works can, more often than not, work. In this sense, Kantor seems to be the only participating curator able to have the confidence to know what he wanted. And for this particular viewer, I find myself wanting more of Jordan Kantor’s POV.

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What exists between these four exhibitions is more of a premise than a revelation – leaving the viewer searching for comparisons and contrasting the work of both the artist/curators and the galleries themselves. Although we are still questioning the gallery’s delineated roles, like artist, curator, exhibition, or collection, each gallery and artist alike put together an exhibition that is a quirky example of the artist’s point of view.  Yet in this case of artist curated exhibitions, we are left with a seemingly internalized and self-reflexive group.

They Knew What They Wanted will be on view through August 13th.

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