Listen to interviews gathered for our segments on Eastern Standard, the weekly public affairs radio magazine on WEKU. Click on the images to listen to UnderMain’s Art Shechet, in conversation with Speed Museum contemporary arts curator Miranda Lash; Tatiana Gant, executive director of the Montana Arts Council discussing with Sky Marietta the value to rural artists of their “Artrepreneur” program; and Wendy Barnett sitting down with Ave Lawyer, co-founder of Lexington’s unique On The Verge theatre company, and actors Kevin Hardesty and Rachel Lee Rogers to discuss the production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part Two.
Miranda Lash, Speed Art Museum curator of contemporary art
Tatiana Gant, Executive Director, Montana Arts Council
Kevin Hardesty, Rachel Lee Rogers in A Doll’s House, Part II
Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past is on view at the Speed Art Museum through October 30th. It complements an earlier art exhibition, Gaela Erwin: Mother that was on view at the University of Louisville’s Cressman Center for the Visual Arts this past summer.
In each show Erwin explores her genealogy, both familial and artistic. The German Expressionist Max Beckmann wrote in 1939, “the self is the greatest mystery in the world.” Like Beckmann’s pursuit of “the mystery of being,” Erwin’s art may be seen as a continual effort to be ever more specific about the psychology of identity, household relationships and art historical heritage. The family portraits are less about lineage and more about penetrating self-discovery. The artist is not leaning on art historical models for legitimation or prestige, but to delve deeply into the nature of portraiture in past and present practice.
Gaela Erwin (American), Portrait of my Mother in her Wedding Dress, 2013, chalk pastel, Collection of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum Hotels
Erwin’s greatest invention in the Cressman show was to depict her nonagenarian mother asleep, reclining full length, attired in her wedding dress. Erwin’s mother (now deceased) suffered from dementia and Erwin’s use of her mother as a subject ironically presents a gifted physiognomist contemplating a loved one subtly expressionless. The bridal gown unfamiliarizes the sitter: dress-up is a way of losing touch with time, and heightening, in this case, the struggle of age versus beauty.
In her affecting portrayals of the last years of her mother’s life, Erwin conveys a telling inventory of the symptoms of dementia evoked in John Bayley’s phrases describing his wife, Iris Murdoch: “behindhand;” “unreassured;” “wonder on the edge of fear;” “the daily pucker of blank anxiety.” Erwin charts her mother’s mien, the dropping lower lip, the sagging flesh, and the bulging carotid artery, yet also intimates empathy for a striking woman seemingly accustomed to being beautiful, the chalk uncannily taking on the substance of rouge and lipstick. The pastel is handled very directly in this work and left unblended as in the bold red and black marks defining the arthritic fingers of the sitter’s right hand.
Several double portraits of Erwin and her sister Shelley were in both exhibitions. Especially in the costumed double portraits in the Speed show, the artist intimates the complexity of sibling relationships and the numbing exhaustion of negotiating the care of a dying parent. In The Erwin Sisters as Artist and Poet compressing the figures against the frontal plane signals both closeness and discomfort. Nonetheless, the recurring portraits in 18th and 19th Century costume create an air of politesse, courtly manners and courtesies, as if these traditions offered a pathway to an authentically civil society.
Gaela Erwin, Self-Portrait as Twins Separated at Birth, 2016, pastel on paper, Courtesy of the Artist
An extension of the portraits with her sister is Erwin’s Self Portrait as Twins Separated at Birth. The backdrop of trees adapted from Francis Cotes in four works is here rendered a trompe l’oeil picture within a picture held on the wall behind the double portrait with push pins and masking tape. The finesse with which the sheen of blue satin is rendered in the 18th Century Erwin, on the left, contrasts with the abstract expressionist gestural drawing describing the faded Union Jack t-shirt in the contemporary Erwin on the right.
The gaze of the informal, t-shirted and blue-jeaned self is direct and confrontational, while the historicized figure averts from looking at the viewer. A traditional symbol of vanity, a peacock feather, adorns the shawl draped over the arms of the costumed version. The constricted period gown and blonde wig gives the fictional character an air of hauteur, dominating the sister two centuries her junior. A literal depiction of the idiom denoting worry and anxiety, “ I am beside myself,” is given a narrative cast. As in many other works in the exhibition, there is a sense of incipient action – the moment before the moment something momentous will happen, perhaps when artifice is revealed and the real Gaela Erwin steps forward.
In the catalogue to the exhibition, Eileen Yanoviak, Exhibition Coordinator at the Speed Art Museum, places Erwin’s portraits firmly in the tradition of the fantasy portrait, with its openings to associations and fictions about the past: “They are a sort of ‘self-fashioning’ through history, a way to select those attributes and narratives that define an individual. Removed from contemporary reality, these portraits seem to reveal the paradoxes and complexities of the present through the past.”
Erwin pays homage to pastel practice with riffs on studies by 18th Century masters in the Speed’s collection by Jean-Baptiste Perroneau (1715-1783), and Francis Cotes ( 1726-1770), as well as the 20th Century artist, Winold Reiss (1786-1953).
Gaela Erwin (American), Licia and Neema, 2016, Pastel on paper, Courtesy of the artist
The exhibition’s tour-de-force is a double portrait of Licia Priest and Neema Tambo modeled on the Francis Cotes depiction of two young women. The African-American subjects are resplendent in 18th Century costume: Erwin’s pastel is more finished in these likenesses than in other works in the show and Priest and Tambo occupy a more ample field. Erwin deploys her technical skills to provide a convincing case for the dignity and self-possession of the sitters. Yanoviak notes, accurately, that they are “aggressively present.” The fantasy of elegant, aristocratic black women in 18th Century high fashion garb engenders a back-and-forth meditation on sexual and racial politics in the 18th Century and today. Staging does not constrict the figures or indulge an inveigling flattery but instead re-doubles ironic reverberations between person and persona, actor and role. Like a great evening of theater, the performers seem totally believable, the artificiality and glitz of setting and costume enhancing rather than detracting from the illusion.
The Speed needs to be applauded for a very full presentation of a Kentucky artist with an excellent illustrated catalogue. Also notable is the juxtaposition of historical works from the permanent collection and contemporary responses. For all art museums, the holy grails of relevance and accessibility are elusive – Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past sets a high and imitable standard.
Visual arts in Lexington are in an exciting and reinvigorated phase. Lexingtonians are eagerly anticipating the opening of 21c Hotel, with its presentation of provocative contemporary art. The bold and exciting repurposed building for the UK School of Arts and Visual Studies, under the leadership of Rob Jensen, faces outward towards the community and holds great promise for increased university and community dialogue and interaction. Stuart Horodner has, not without some discordant voices, taken complete charge of UK Art Museum and turned around the museum with exciting programming, an open and inviting spirit, and increased attendance. And the Lexington Art League has refocused and reenergized after several years of crisis, and is presenting a signature show, Artist:Body, curated by Julien Robson, former contemporary curator of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.
With increased commercial and not-for-profit gallery activity, such as the LexArts gallery at ArtsPlace, more frequent and well-attended Gallery Hops, and the still-to-open breathtaking new Living Arts and Sciences space, the visual arts in Lexington are, indeed, on a major upswing.
However, what will be, undoubtedly, the most important and impactful news on the visual arts scene in the region will occur in a few short weeks with the reopening of the Speed Art Museum after a more than three-year major renovation and expansion. Funded by a highly successful $60 million capital campaign, the new Speed Art Museum will be poised to move beyond a role as a regional art museum of some significance to becoming an essential cultural institution on a national level.
Closed since late 2012, the central elements of the expansion of the Speed involved the demolition of the often-controversial 1972 addition, the construction of a three-story north building and two-story south building, and connecting the two to the original temple of high art built in 1927. The design of the new buildings emphasizes light and transparency, inviting the public into the new museum. Surrounded by redesigned outside spaces that include an art park, plazas and patios, and a large, shallow pool, the openness of the museum is a marked contrast to its somewhat foreboding, pre-expansion past.
Of equal importance to the expansion and redesign, is the new leadership at the Speed. Ghislain d’Humières was hired as Director of the Museum in 2013, succeeding Charles Venable who left for the Indianapolis Museum of Art. D’Humières, formerly Director of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma, and prior to that Assistant Director of San Francisco’s Museum of Fine Art, headed up the major expansion of the latter museum. His successful leadership of that project clearly made him a very appealing candidate to lead the Speed.
Since assuming his new position, d’Humières has made several critical hires to help him usher in the new era of the Speed Art Museum. Included in those new leadership posts is Erika Holmquist-Wall, formerly assistant curator of paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, hired in 2014 as Mary and Barry Bingham Sr. Curator of European and American Painting and Sculpture. In that same year Miranda Lash, formerly curator of modern and contemporary art at the New Orleans Museum of Art and one of the young rising stars of the curatorial world, joined the Speed as Curator of Contemporary Art.
Lash’s departure from NOMA was much lamented in the Crescent City, where she had arrived in 2008 in a city recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Known at NOMA for deep engagement with the artistic and broader community culture, and for commissioning site-specific works for the museum by local artists, Lash deepened that institution’s commitment to a broadened range of contemporary art and helped to make it a more accessible and popular cultural space. Her hiring by the Speed was seen by many as a real coup for the museum.
On a rainy afternoon turned sunny last summer, UnderMain went on a tour of the still-under-construction museum with Lash and the Speed’s Director of Marketing and Communication, Steven Bowling. The boldness of the design of the expanded museum and of the vision for the new Speed came through loud and clear on the tour and in a delightful early evening dinner with Lash. A place for the Speed in the conversation about great American museums is clearly on her radar.
Much of the expansive new gallery space of the Speed will be dedicated to contemporary art and will enable Lash to bring a wide range of exhibitions to Louisville. She clearly is eagerly anticipating what that square footage will allow her to do programmatically. The new outside spaces are also allowing her to commission a number of site-specific works for the Art Park and newly landscaped areas.
Significantly, the increased gallery spaces inside the museum will allow more of the Speed’s permanent collection, numbering over 13,000 works, to be shown. The museum’s reopening exhibition, A Celebration of the Speed Collection, will show more of the permanent collection than the museum is likely to show again in one exhibition for the foreseeable future.
Deeply interested in art as a portal into themes of culture, identity, and history, Lash resonated to and was inspired by the vivid, multicultural, free-flowing, tragicomic New Orleans story and vibe. It will be interesting to watch how she responds to a more buttoned up, nearly-Southern, nearly-Midwestern city. It’s clear that Lash will use her position at the Speed to deepen visitors’ engagement through contemporary art with the broader world and with issues and questions that resonate beyond the confines of our Kentucky space.
As a follow-up to our visit and conversation, Miranda Lash generously agreed to respond in writing to a number of questions that were posed to her.
UM: After, by all accounts, a successful tenure at NOMA, what in particular appealed to you about the position at the Speed?
Lash: First and foremost I was attracted by the opportunity to build something new. The Speed is on the verge of embarking upon a renewed era of innovation in contemporary art largely enabled by three factors: 1. the opening of a new wing for the contemporary collection in beautiful, large-scale galleries designed by Kulapat Yantrasast; 2. A substantial commitment made by the Speed to support the commissioning of site-specific pieces by leading international artists. These commissions will populate the new Art Park and the interior of the building; and 3. A commitment on behalf of the Speed to support the generation of nationally relevant contemporary art exhibitions and publications that will circulate around the country.
UM: Give our readers some idea about the breadth and depth of the Speed’s permanent collection in contemporary art. With the museum renovation and expansion, will there be opportunities to see more of the contemporary collection?
Lash: The Speed’s contemporary collection spans from wonderful examples of Abstract Expressionism from the 1950s to video artworks made just in the last few years. Visitors will be able to contemplate a large range of work, from great paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, Alice Neel, and Sam Gilliam, to more recent pieces by Yinka Shonibare, Ghada Amer, Carrie Mae Weems and The Propeller Group.
Once the Speed opens at least 8,000 square feet of gallery space will be dedicated to the contemporary collection, and from time to time there will be opportunities to display parts of the collection in additional galleries. For the opening exhibition in March 2016, the Speed will dedicate two floors (the equivalent of 16,000 square feet) to the display of the contemporary collection. This is an enormous amount of space, and I am encouraging visitors to come see this display (which will be on view through August 2016), first because this will be the most expansive display of the contemporary collection that the Speed has ever had in its history, and secondly, it may be years before the Speed is able to display the collection in such a comprehensive manner again.
UM: How has the role of museum curator evolved over the years to this point in the early part of the 21st century? Is a curator a tastemaker, interpreter, promoter, entertainer, carnival barker? How would you describe your developing role as curator of contemporary art at the Speed?
Lash: Museum curators, now more than ever, are encouraged to think globally about trends, innovations, and relevant artists and exhibitions. It is not enough to know what is happening in your region (although a curator should know this well), you are also expected to keep current on a large number of national and international art biennials, fairs, and major touring shows. Thanks to the Internet and the rapid expansion of biennials and triennials across the globe during the last thirty years, we have more access than ever to currents of activity transpiring all over the world. With this explosion of information the need for filtering, as well as constant travel and looking, becomes all the more important.
Secondly, due the shrinking of state, city and federal funds made available to the arts over the past few decades, the development and fundraising responsibilities assigned to curators can at times demand as much time as actual content development. If you believe that curators should pursue sound and thorough scholarship, and maintain their editorial independence apart from commercial and private interests, I encourage you to support museums through your tax dollars and museum admissions.
Sometimes we are tastemakers, interpreters, and promoters, but most of all I think of us as storytellers, educators, and advocates for artists.
UM: What are some of the ideas, issues, perspectives, and questions that drive your curatorial decisions about exhibitions and programs?
Lash: I look long and carefully at the artworks in my collection and I think about the narratives that are embedded within it and how I can flesh these stories out. I think about trends and conflicts in the world, and questions we are struggling with as a nation, and ask, how can art help the us navigate the complexities of these issues? Often I think about what is bothering me and why. For example, for years I was amazed and confounded by the way both “Northerners” and “Southerners” would talk about the “North” and the “South” in the United States, using broad generalizations, assumptions and stereotypes to communicate their point. For every assumption that was made, I would find a vast number of exceptions, and no clear consensus at the heart of any of these Northern or Southern stereotypes. So, as way of working through this, now I am working with a co-curator Trevor Schoonmaker on a large group show that aims to explore, essentially: what do we mean when we talk about the South and why?
UM: What obligation does a museum have to be of its place, reflective of its surroundings, it’s culture, environment, people?
Lash: This depends on the stated mission of the museum, which varies greatly between institutions. At the Speed, we take our role very seriously as an important (and for some the only) point of contact visitors may have to artistic trends and ideas going on in other countries. We want Louisvillians to be educated and excited about what is happening in Mexico City, Berlin, and Ho Chi Minh City, and we have more capacity than any other museum in Kentucky to provide this global perspective.
At the Speed we also have an obligation to present artwork that is relevant to Louisville. As a curator I look for topics and concepts that will have resonance with this region. For example, during my time here I have noticed that Louisville as a city has a huge interest in local food cultivation, sustainable agriculture, and food activism (helping people from all economic strata have access to healthy food). As a result I have been talking with artists who focus on this in their practice to see if they could be a fit for our site-specific commissions. The Speed has and will continue to collect and exhibit outstanding artworks by artists who are living in (or have lived in) this region. The structure for this continuing endeavor will be based on the strengths and merits of the artists’ work and their chosen subject matter rather than their regional orientation.
UM: At NOMA you were known for reaching into the local community including making frequent visits to local artists’ studios. Will you be doing the same in your current position and how should an artist prepare for a visit?
Lash: Yes, I love doing studio visits. Some tips:
1. Decide what you (the artist) want to get out of the visit: feedback on a particular direction? Advice on galleries and contracts? Advice on how to package and present your work to collectors? I can help with all these things. Please don’t hesitate to ask.
2. If this is my first studio visit with you, it is helpful to get an overview of your practice, which can be efficiently done nowadays with digital images on a laptop, tablet, or phone, or even color printouts (if the artworks themselves are not readily available). At least 75 percent of the visit however, should be dedicated to your most recent work – What are you thinking about now? What do you want to do in the future? Remember, it is my job to seek out new ideas and trends that most people have not seen before. Keep in mind that most studio visits will generally last no longer than one hour, so please budget your time in terms of what you want to cover. Again, having questions or topics planned in advance can help with time management.
3. Remember that the main goal during a studio visit is for me to get an overall sense of who you are as an artist. Feel free to talk with me about big picture concepts, overarching goals and ambitions, and what techniques and discoveries you are most excited about. This is not a time to ask for money, patron contacts, or to voice complaints about other artists, local politics, etc. Exhibitions and acquisitions are often the fruits of many visits and conversations over time, and can take years to develop. Instead of focusing on what I can do for you in the immediate future, think of it as a relationship that we can potentially develop over time.
4. I often stress the importance of being “studio ready.” This means, if a curator, critic, or patron were to come through town on short notice, I know I can call you or email you and you will be able to give a polished presentation on whatever is in your studio now. If my studio visit goes well and I sense that you are capable of making a clear, succinct presentation, I won’t hesitate to send other people your way.
UM: Over the next three to five years what are your main goals and ambitions for contemporary art at the Speed?
Lash: Overall I aim to put on good looking, provocative shows and get people excited about art. If I’m doing my job right, in three to five years Louisville will be present in the minds of my colleagues in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and beyond. Really though, I do this job for the thrill of seeing an artist’s project come together really well. It is never guaranteed to happen, but when it does the result is euphoric. A truly successful project can take on a life of its own, spill out onto the streets, and assume a magical quality. I’ll be grateful and pleased if I can make that happen here. Please stay tuned for more.
A Celebration of the Speed Collection opens March 12 with the reopening of the museum.