Stuart Horodner

Stuart Horodner is Director of The University of Kentucky Art Museum. He was previously Artistic Director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

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Stuart Horodner: The Art World After COVID

We’ve asked a number of people to write brief reaction pieces to art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent piece in Vulture, “The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One”. The writers were also asked to comment about the effects the virus and resulting mitigation steps have had on their work. We will be publishing these pieces over the next several months.

How has COVID 19 impacted what you do?

The spread of the virus and all the precautions around it led to the obvious decision to close the UK Art Museum until such time that it is safe to return. The staff and I are working from home, doing research and creating online offerings that provide the robust flavor of what we normally do, if not the actual taste. We meet via Zoom and FaceTime, and the longer our seclusion lasts, the more these gridded conversations keep the connection between us and remind us of our shared commitment to a life in the arts.

In a recent article for The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz wrote about the theatre in these days of quarantine: “I hope it doesn’t sound too prematurely elegiac to say that one of the things I miss about going to the theatre is the going: leaving home, travelling, with a sense of purpose, to a specific place at an appointed hour. I miss threading my way through the obstacle course of Times Square, secretly proud of my agility. And I miss being part of an audience, one soul among many. I even miss the infuriating madness of other people.”(1)

I can relate. Not being able to feel each distinct part of the work day – from driving to the university, dealing with the day’s tasks, eating lunch in the break room, and having face-to-face encounters with students, faculty, staff, and the public who’ve come to see an exhibition, attend a lecture or a tour, or participate in a workshop or Family Day activity – is disorienting and depressing. We are planners and presenters, and this gives us a sense of purpose and pride. Not being able to know for certain when to arrange for the installation of new exhibitions, or book travel for exhibiting artists or guest speakers, is maddening. Oh, to be back in the happy days of listening to visitors complain about the lack of parking or scrambling to get ready for an opening reception!

As I write this, government officials and university leadership are making budget calculations and projecting the possibility of phased returns in the future. While we wait for a clear sense of how this will work, my mind goes to the belief that I’ve maintained since adolescence – that art is meaningful and transformative, giving us insights into ourselves and others. While we can’t have the real thing right now, there is something satisfying about delivering a few weekly social media items that can engage the homebound art lover. The museum has a modified Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament going that pits artworks from our permanent collection against each other, asking viewers to vote on their favorites, as well as writing prompts for parents and teachers using current and recent exhibitions, and staff reflections on their own wondrous objects, which is a teaser for the upcoming Cabinet of Wonder exhibition.

How do you see post-COVID 19 practice?

This period puts in even starker relief the vulnerabilities that organizations of all sizes understand about their situation. A small and scrappy art center knows the struggle of paying staff what they are worth, and the value of each grant, membership, and annual fund donation. A venerable encyclopedic museum with millions of annual visitors knows the challenges of securing major sponsorships and the mind-numbing protocols of crowd control. I’m reminded of a comment by artist Xu Bing: “My viewpoint is that wherever you live, you will face that place’s problems. If you have problems then you have art.” (2)

None of us could have imagined that a pandemic would put a total stop to our publicness. That was not in anybody’s strategic plan. But if problems yield art, then our collective creativity now and in the future will figure out appropriate ways of being.

When I interviewed for the directorship of the UK Art Museum in the spring of 2014, I told everyone I encountered that great university museums do three things in this order: they are a valuable asset on campus, offering faculty and students varied exhibits and programs that can be linked to syllabi and various learning outcomes; they are beloved in their communities as a destination for art lovers of all ages and backgrounds; and they contribute to the field, establishing a solid reputation for rigor, experimentation, and relevance.

University museums are often poised to take risks, and I’m thinking of several past and present directors and curators that I’ve respected for years, who have each steered their institutions with passion and clarity. They’ve worked in good times and bad, dealt with questions of appropriate scale, diversity, and inclusion in hiring practices and collection management, and economic uncertainty. A quick list includes Ian Berry at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery (Skidmore College), Barry Blinderman at the University Galleries (Illinois State University), Andrea Barnwell Brownlee at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Susanne Ghez at the Renaissance Society (University of Chicago), Ann Philbin at the Hammer Museum (UCLA), Larry Rinder at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives, and Simone Wicha and Veronica Roberts at the Blanton Museum of Art (University of Texas at Austin), to name a few.

Artist Tony Tasset standing next to his Mood Sculpture, installed near the UK Student Center, but relocated this past winter to the front of the UK Art Museum. Photograph by Alan Rideout.

The post-COVID environment will demand that we are secure in being open and can be especially clear about our values and deliverables. What lessons did we learn that can be brought from this curious limbo condition to the first phase of a “new normal?” How can we prioritize our endeavors as we face likely budget cuts and audience anxieties about occupying cultural spaces? Which platforms and what tone will be most effective in communicating the significance of our work into the future?

I’m thinking a lot about the exhibition planned for fall called This is America*, coinciding with the 2020 presidential election. It was conceived to examine aspects of history, citizenry, faith, race, sexuality, dignity, power, and struggle today. How can it not be altered to address, in some way, the precautions we are taking, from hand washing to social distancing? It was always meant to challenge viewers to sort out their knowledge of, and feelings about, our country. Will visitors want to be challenged after months of isolation and anxiety?

How do you respond to Jerry Saltz’s recent article, The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One? (3)

I agree with him that the inequalities in the system which were obvious before will be even more so. I’m not interested in making predictions right now. Everyone has their version of the glory days and there have been war stories at every level of the artworld for decades. I will save mine for another day.

There will be changes, as always. Artists, galleries, critics, collectors, and institutions are never static. I remember Leon Golub telling me: “There are three things: your work, your livelihood, and your personal life. If any two are going well at the same time consider yourself lucky.” (4)

Given the current situation, we might need to be content with one good thing. We are all in the big “we’ll see.” But we are in good company.

  1. Alexandra Schwartz, “Screen Time: Performers on lockdown turn to their smartphones,” The New Yorker, pp 75-77, April 6, 2020.
  2. Xu Bing, in Letters to a Young Artist, Peter Nesbett, Shelley Bancroft, and Sarah Andress, eds. (New York: Darte Publishing, 2006), 15.
  3. Jerry Saltz, “The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One,” New York (Apr 2, 2020), https://www.vulture.com/2020/04/how-the-coronavirus-will-transform-the-art-world.html, accessed April 16, 2020.
  4. Leon Golub, conversation with the author, October 15, 1999.

Top image photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Arts

Garden Breakdown, Again

To commit to writing about Ebony G. Patterson’s exhibition at the Speed Museum requires acknowledging my professional relationship and friendship with the artist, and these facts:

1. I met Ebony at the University of Kentucky in the summer of 2014, and asked her if anyone had contextualized her among the artists of the 1970s Pattern and Decoration movement, including Cynthia Carlson, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner, Miriam Schapiro, and others. She said no. Since then, several curators have linked her work to this historical period, while clarifying that her opulent constructions using beads, glitter, and brooches refer to her native Jamaica and festivals like Mardi Gras and Carnival, rather than the mining of supply stores on Canal Street in Manhattan.

2. A year later, curator Janie Welker and I included Patterson in Bottoms Up: A Sculpture Survey show at the UK Art Museum, locating her installation of five elevated coffins covered in fabric and tassels from her performance, Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, near a John Ahearn portrait bust and a Felix Gonzalez-Torres stack of posters showing a bird in flight and gray clouds, among other 20th and 21st century works.

3. I contributed an essay* to the online publication that accompanied her fourth solo show at Monique Meloche Gallery in 2019, titled …for those who bear/bare witness…. Patterson’s installation strategy for that exhibition carries over to the survey that originated at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, her largest to date, and made even bigger with the addition of several works at the Speed Museum, where it is on view until January 5, 2020. My thoughts on that exhibition follow.

…while the dew is still on the roses… starts at the museum’s title wall with a deep purple background color and shimmering vinyl, clusters of silk leaves, flowers, and vines emerging from the walls and ceiling. This effectively telegraphs what will follow, as we are led down a path into a “night garden” that frames works featuring defiant and dismembered bodies of men and women that the artist has used as protagonists for the past several years.

We begin with a gallery filled with the projection of a three-channel video from 2012, titled The Observation: The Bush Cockerel Project, A Fictitious Historical Narrative. Two male figures are covered in floral patterned clothing that situates and masks them in a dense tropical garden. Their faces are covered by elaborate plumage, and they pose and preen while passing the small body of a baby between them. “Bush cockerels” are wild roosters, and these two – one black and one white – are silent and purposeful. They blend into their surroundings and their actions are not easily decoded.

In the following sequence of galleries we are treated to numerous works installed against fabric wallpaper showing details of a garden at night: a gridded pattern of moist dormant flowers in a palette of purples, gray, and white. Like other artists who have designed wallpaper to serve as backdrop for singular works (think Andy Warhol’s cows and Maos, and Robert Gober’s torsos and genitals), there is the risk of erring too much on the side of mise-en-scène and sacrificing the viewing of individual paintings and sculptures. Add to Patterson’s use of this wallpaper, her staging of abundant artificial flowers that cascade in and around her photographs, tapestries, drawings, and sculptures throughout the exhibition. I could not help but wonder, “How much is too much?”

Installation view: Ebony G. Patterson …while the dew is still on the roses…, Speed Art Museum.

Dead Tree in a Forest… from 2013, is a large mixed media work featuring checkerboard and leopard-patterned figures and a visible rooster, situated in a shifting green floral field. Its thick black frame fares well against the wallpaper, protecting the lively action at the paper’s edges from being absorbed into the larger wall treatment.

Ebony G. Patterson, Dead Tree in a Forest . . . , 2013. Mixed media on paper, 87 x 83 inches.

I’m convinced that other 2018 works from the …for those who bear/bare witness… series are compromised by the ubiquitous background and fake flowers. These carefully assembled tapestries, with their precise cuts and layering of printed, cast, and found elements, are hard enough to sort out when presented against a white ground. The anonymous victims memorialized by these works demand to be seen, and that seeing takes time and focus. The artist insists that we don’t look away, and yet her desire to make a unified environment made me do just that.

Ebony G. Patterson.  . . . they stood in a time of unknowing . . . for those who bear/bare witness… , 2018. Hand-cut jacquard photo tapestry with glitter, appliques, pins, embellishments, fabric, tassels, brooches, acrylic, glass, pearls, beads, and hand-cast heliconias, 108 x 132 inches.

Patterson’s strength is orchestrating a complex realness and fakeness in dense pictorial fields within specific works. Bodies abound, undone by acts of dismemberment and overwhelming adornment. Headless matriarchs search for missing children, their own bodies festooned with strands of ribbon and glass pearls. We have come late to these crimes, and our viewing is an attempt to reconcile our fear and mourning. When her work is focused on feelings, it has a gravitas that is often missing in the similarly decked out work of her peers, including Radcliffe Bailey, Sanford Biggers, and Mickalene Thomas. When it is not, she runs the risk of creating likeable displays one glances at rather than examining closely.

The installation of …stars… provides a resting place. In this 2018 sculpture, hundreds of women’s shoes and slippers form a glistening black cloud hovering overhead. Patterson is referencing the tossing of sneakers whose laces have been tied together over electrical wires in urban areas to declare gang territory or safe drug dens. In some neighborhoods, hanging shoes signify someone has died. These readings fit right into the artist’s marking of potentially ominous territory and lost bodies. …stars… could be the night sky or it could be a description of the people whose souls have departed the earthly plane.

In …moments we cannot bury… , also from 2018, five large red forms are held aloft by wooden armatures. They seem like big clumps of earth covered in silk plants and flowers, projecting visceral qualities that are both bodily and ceremonial. These mounds invite inspection, and reveal tucked away cast glass objects including hands, toys, baseball caps, sneakers, backpacks, and butterflies. Topping each are translucent flowers of the poisonous variety, including bird-of-paradise, lilies of the valley, and daffodils. We find ourselves in what appears at first to be a welcoming and fertile Eden, only to realize that there is past and possibly present death and danger everywhere.

Installation view at the Speed Art Museum: Ebony G. Patterson …while the dew is still on the roses… with …moments we cannot bury… in the foreground.

Last and most poignantly positioned is a small chapel-like room where the video …three kings weep… is playing. Three black men are framed as if in a religious triptych. They are bare-chested and exposed characters who look straight ahead, catching our gaze. They slowly dress themselves, in colorful patterned shirts and vests, jewelry, and other adornments. Their movements are powerfully hypnotic, as much because they are the most vividly alive humans we’ve encountered in the exhibition, as well as the fact that the costumed action is playing in reverse. By the end, each man will be silently crying. At times during the eight-minute video, we hear a man reciting lines from the 1919 poem “If We Must Die” by Jamaican poet Claude McKay. It is a testament to dignity and bravery, and the power and vulnerability of black bodies.

Installation view at the Speed Art Museum: Ebony G. Patterson. …three kings weep…, 2018. Three-channel digital color video with sound, 8 min., 34 sec.

A final comment about Patterson’s use of ellipses in her titles. We know that this grammatical mark is used to designate an omission in a sentence. In many of her works, this serves as a reminder that things have been left out, or are unknown to us, or might be revealed later. It is our job to sift through what is here, carefully accumulating clues, whether we are surrounded by lush foliage or sitting quietly in a spare room.

*The title of my essay for Patterson’s exhibition at Monique Meloche was Garden Breakdown. I’ve altered it slightly for use here.