Works of art are often experienced only within the context of an exhibition, but sometimes we are curious where they came from and how they come to be discovered? 

Curators often have different approaches to selecting works. To find out the hows and whys that drove their selections, WPA had the pleasure of speaking with SELECT 2014 curators Dr. Brandon Fortune, Chief Curator and Curator of Painting and Sculpture, National Portrait Gallery, and Gregory Volk, NY-based Art Critic/Independent Curator/Associate Professor.  Find out how Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Grateful Dead influenced Mr. Volk’s decisions and all the different ways these curators came to learn out about the artists whose work they selected.

By Deena O. Hyatt

WPA: What motivated you to choose the works you selected for SELECT 2014?

Dr. Brandon Fortune: I spend a lot of time with portraits, and I love them.  But I see so much portraiture in contemporary art, so I also wanted to move beyond that with some of my choices.

Gregory Volk: I didn’t choose specific artworks, at least at the beginning.  Instead I chose specific artists, who all fit with my theme and inclinations, namely “The Transportation Business.” Once the artists agreed to participate, I trusted that we would be able to find a specific work (or works).  This is exactly what happened, and it was a collaborative enterprise. Each artwork offers a unique, and sometimes surprising, approach to the core idea of transportation.  

WPA: Dr. Fortune, did you have anything in mind, like an overarching theme? Mr. Volk, can you tell me more about the theme of transportation?

Dr. Brandon Fortune: There was no overarching theme.  I loved the color and rhythm in Eames Armstrong’s and Kate McGraw's drawings, and the lushness and density of Ian Whitmore's painting.  I did lean toward portraiture in asking Jeff Huntington, Sonia Paulino, Susana Raab, and Clarity Haynes to participate. I admire the thoughtfulness and wit in the work of Rachel Farbiarz and Shelley Spector. And Nekisha Durrett's work, though serious in its intent, makes me smile.  

Rachel Farbiaez, Tug, 2013, Ink and collage on paper, 18 1/4″ x 48 1/4″ Courtesy of the Artist and Heiner Contemporary Reserve Price: $1,080 Rachel Farbiaez, Tug, 2013, Ink and collage on paper, 18 1/4″ x 48 1/4″
Courtesy of the Artist and Heiner Contemporary
Reserve Price: $1,080

Gregory Volk: There are many wonderful things to discover in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1844 essay “The Poet,” for me the first great investigation of radical and experimental writing and art produced in America. In that essay, you will find one of those stop-you-in-your-tracks Emersonian moments that seem at first readily understandable, but later become enigmatic and provocative. Emerson writes, “Art is the path of the creator to his work.” That’s a fascinating notion. For Emerson, art is not the finished painting or sculpture, film or glass object, performance or musical score, but instead the comprehensive path that leads to all of those things—the artist’s particular way of working, thinking, and being. This shift in orientation from object to process, and from product to soulfulness, resonates for me, in terms of my own deep involvement with artists and art. And it also, in my opinion, has a great deal to do with transportation.  In the same essay, Emerson also writes, “the quality of the imagination is to flow and not to freeze,” which is also transportation.

One hundred thirty or so years after Emerson’s essay, Mickey Hart, one of the two drummers for the Grateful Dead, described this famously questing and improvisational band like this: “We’re in the transportation business—we move minds.” I love this notion, and one doesn’t have to be a fan of the band to be similarly enthusiastic.  My contribution to SELECT is conceived as “The Transportation Business,” and transportation should be understood eclectically: physical but also mental, emotional, and visual voyaging; excellent artworks that offer visual pleasure, while they do things to your mind, take you to surprising places, and trigger heightened consciousness.  

- Ralph Waldo Emerson - Ralph Waldo Emerson

WPA: How did you come to discover these artists?

Dr. Brandon Fortune: I met Shelley Spector because she represented the late Rebecca Westcott, whose work was included in a recent Portraiture Now installation at the National Portrait Gallery.  Sonia Paulino's work was in the NPG's Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2009.  I learned of Jeff Huntington, Nekisha Durrett, and Susana Raab because they are local artists and colleagues also knew their work.  I've known Eames Armstrong's family for a long time.  I saw Ian Whitmore's paintings at Fusebox, years ago, and never forgot them.  I met Clarity Haynes when she was living in Philadelphia, about 10 years ago. And Kate McGraw had a show at Flashpoint when I was on the advisory board there.  I have just gotten to know Rachel Farbiarz in the past year, through a colleague at the NPG.  So it's a mix.  

Shelley Spector, A Light, 2010, Pigment print 40″ x 5 ½”, Courtesy of the Artist and Bridgette Mayer Gallery Retail Price: $750 Shelley SpectorA Light, 2010

Gregory Volk: In various ways, all deeply human, meaning, not just looking at and discovering works, but also meeting each artist, becoming friends and colleagues, and really immersing myself in her or his vision and approach. I’ll give an example. Tavares Strachan, from the Bahamas, whose recent (and spectacular) installation in the first-ever Bahamas Pavilion at the last Venice Biennale, constituted one of the signature art experiences of the whole, sprawling exhibition.

In the fall of 2003, I was invited to be a visiting professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, teaching an advanced Critical Issues seminar to graduate students in both the Glass and Sculpture Departments. On my first visit, a couple of hours before class, Strachan, a thoughtful, focused, and rather quiet junior in the Glass Department, sought me out to say that he was very interested in signing up for my seminar, which was, as I knew, strictly reserved for graduate students and also fully booked. His request, therefore, was pretty much impossible.

Still, I was struck by Strachan’s poise, audacity, and crackling intelligence but even more by his compelling presence, and by that I mean how he radiated an uncommon commitment and conviction. I had the immediate impression of a young artist comprehensively inhabiting his ideas and really living, as opposed to just making, his work. Strachan offered to show me some of his work, and to be honest I wasn’t expecting all that much.  I certainly wasn’t expecting to be ushered into an exhibition room where there was a transparent glass vitrine atop a black pedestal and the raucous, booming sound, reverberating throughout the room from loudspeakers, of one black ant as it walked about the black surface of the pedestal (and it took me some time to discover the ant). Strachan had fitted the pedestal with an ultra sensitive microphone; he also worked with scientists and engineers from Brown University to realize the piece, which was a kind of miracle -- I mean a really, loud black ant crashing and booming through an alien environment.  I was instantaneously smitten and immediately told Strachan that if he could arrange, somehow, to circumvent all the rules and enroll in the seminar it would be with my blessing, and that’s what he did.  His neon work I Belong Here, 2013, in SELECT, is a succinct and evocative meditation on movement, rootedness, identity, and transition; this from a Bahamian artist who is also a voyager and explorer, and who recently visited the North Pole.  

Tavares Strachan, I Belong Here, 2013 Tavares Strachan, I Belong Here, 2013

In my very earliest days as an art critic in Williamsburg, Brooklyn -- really just at the beginning -- I met Bruce Pearson and had a wonderful studio visit with him. I was floored by his idiosyncratic combination of language and abstraction, in paintings, and I deeply admired his obvious devotion and commitment.  He had few exhibition opportunities at the time. We met very simply and directly: artist and art lover, but that initial, inspiring visit has resonated and reverberated. Bruce Pearson has since gone on to a flourishing and distinguished career, and I’ve been graced with the opportunity to work with him on exhibitions and to write about his art. Pearson’s works combine short, enigmatic phrases with intricate, at times mind-bending abstract forms, often in vivid colors, and other eclectic images that are just barely discernable. Words in the paintings and drawings at times come into view, but also fragment into brilliantly colored bits and purely abstract patterns, while these works also constitute a sort of current psychedelia.

I met Ander Mikalson when she was working at Pierogi in Williamsburg (one of my favorite galleries, and something of a home for me in the art world) and I was struck by her presence, intelligence, and depth of soul.  Subsequently, when I curated (together with Sabine Russ) a major exhibition of American art called Carnival Within in Berlin, I invited her to be our chief assistant, and she was simply wonderful. After that, she was a grad student in painting at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I am a professor, and for two years I closely worked with her, carefully and alertly following her remarkable development as an artist, as she moved from paintings into installations, scientific research, sound, music, and performance: a creative process that involved considerable transportation. Her works in SELECT are visual scores for a musical performance, and with these works sound is transported into visual forms.

I was also instantaneously smitten by the tremendous and, for me, unprecedented works—all novel combinations of photos and drawings—in Sebastiaan Bremer’s first solo exhibition at Roebling Hall in Williamsburg, way back in 2001.  For these works, Bremer jettisoned most of the painterly strategies and techniques that he had employed for ten years, and instead drew directly on photographs. What resulted are not only visually bedazzling works, but also works that involve a complex, fluid exchange between made marks and photographic image, as well as between those marks and the photograph as an actual, physical artifact. These early works heralded Bremer as, quite possibly, a major new artist, and what especially captivated me is his intricately human, searching, deeply personal, response to, and transfiguration of, past situations and fleeting moments: his live, current mind operating on visual traces of the past, with all the thoughts, memories, and emotions they trigger.  Walloped by the work, I made a point of meeting the artist, and we quickly became friends.  He has since been in several exhibitions that I’ve curated, he invited me to write an essay for his first (I think) catalogue, and I’ve recently completed a large essay for a new, more comprehensive catalogue that will shortly be published.  

Ander Mikalson, Score for a Cyclone (Sheet Metal), 2013 Ander Mikalson, Score for a Cyclone (Sheet Metal), 2013

Through Sebastiaan Bremer, I met and became friends with his wife Andrea Lerner and Rosane Chamecki (both are Brazilians).  Together, they constitute the acclaimed choreographic duo chameckilerner and they have been presenting remarkable dance performances for the past 15 years.  They are known for choreography that’s at once cerebral and intricately physical, and that explores ever-shifting relationships between people, including questions of power, eroticism, bewilderment, tenderness and violence.  I am no expert in contemporary dance, but I am certainly interested, and chameckilerner’s last full-length piece Exit (2007), which I saw at the Kitchen in New York, was entirely riveting, and also deeply meaningful. Part of this performance featured a magical, captivating and frankly tear-inducing film Flying Lesson (presented as a video) realized in conjunction the filmmaker Phil Harder.  In the film, two women (Chamecki and Lerner), wearing ersatz angels’ wings, repeatedly, and futilely, jump up and try to take flight, while chanting, in Portuguese, “Um, dois, tres!” With whimsical music, and rickety wings such as a child might wear at a costume party, the whole scene is willfully cheesy and comical, until, that is, the two women are suddenly aloft, miraculously flying down an exterior corridor, out into the city in brilliant sunlight and through a field.  This startling flight outdoors (actually accomplished by meticulous film editing) becomes a delightful expression of human restrictions and aspirations, doubt and hope.

For our Berlin exhibition Carnival Within, Sabine Russ and I got the idea to present this film as an independent work, and I later did the same for another exhibition I curated in Burlington, Vermont, called Outdoor Excursions.  The photographs, or rather film stills, in SELECT are from this film, and I love the idea of choreography crossing over into visual art.  

Chameckilerner, Flying Lesson 1, 2007 Chameckilerner, Flying Lesson 1, 2007

I met Holly Zausner in Berlin, when she was having an exhibition at Wohnmaschine (now called Loock Gallery).  I really liked her sculptures from that time, and I really liked her.  Subsequently we have become friends and frequent collaborators, and I have enthusiastically followed how she has moved into combinations of sculpture and photography as well as photographic collages and films.  Many of Zausner’s works involve transportation, in multiple senses: sculptures transported into videos, videos which themselves function as much-discovering voyages. I met Ati Maier (a German artist based in New York) several years ago during a studio visit, and once again was instantaneously stunned by her work, which involved (and still does, by the way, in some measure) a thoroughly idiosyncratic combination of space exploration and horse riding, especially in Wyoming (Maier is an expert horse rider).  Maier’s paintings function as voyages and they involve a gorgeous, mind-bending conflation of things heavenly and earthly; more recently has been showing truly special videos. Sarah Walker who, like Maier, also shows at Pierogi (which is where I first met her) is an especially charismatic and intense artist. What I find particularly fascinating is how Walker explores possibilities and extends boundaries in her paintings, and here is where her mostly abstract works accrue multiple layers of visual information, some of them representational. Cosmic structures and events such as streaking comets, remote galaxies, and distant nebulae; landforms such as archipelagos, perhaps seen from a satellite’s height; biological references; subatomic particles; digital culture; and various kinds of architecture all abound in Walker’s paintings, which also involve surprising perspectival shifts. As you look at one of Walker’s paintings, with all its multiple, interlacing layers, you also feel you are looking down at it (from a great height), out toward spectacular vistas in deep space, and in, for instance, into the inner workings and dimensions of the psyche.

I met Klara Hobza, a Czech artist now based in Berlin, several years ago at The Drawing Center in New York.  I was one of several curators invited to “curate,” in public, on a computer, and in a short amount of time, an “exhibition” from the Drawing Center’s Viewing Program archive of emerging artists.  We were suddenly given a theme, and then had to quickly make selections, while the audience could observe our deliberations and decisions; this was, of course, a nerve-racking enterprise.  I was given this theme, an unattributed quote: “When there's a person, there's a problem. When there's no person, there's no problem.” I happened (and luckily so) to know that the quote is from Josef Stalin, who killed something like 20 million people, and with that brutality in mind I decided to fully embrace problematic people, with an “exhibition” that only involved diverse, figurative works.  After this curating performance, Klara Hobza approached me to discuss my “show,” in a really fresh, open way, and I also inquired about her activities. That initial encounter led to me delving deeply into her work, and writing two catalogue essays about her.  During our initial meeting, she also informed me that she had just been a resident at Seven Below Arts Initiative in Vermont, and I wasn’t familiar with this residency at the time. It’s the only residency (that I know of) inspired by rock musicians, namely the band Phish.  Since I am a fan of the band, I got in touch with the Phish organization to see if I, as an art critic, might somehow assist this residency. I was thinking in terms of writing something, perhaps for Art in America.  Instead, the Phish organization invited me to be on the jury, selecting artists, and that’s what I’ve done for the past several years, with enormous pleasure.  

Currently, and in conjunction with many other projects, Klara Hobza is engaged with Diving Through Europe, for which she will voyage, scuba diving, from the North Sea at Rotterdam in the Netherlands to Constanta in Romania, on the Black Sea.  The trip will take her through several European countries, and will last 20 to 30 years, as she dives (oftentimes illegally) in famous waterways like the Danube and Rhein Rivers. Her wonderful photographs in SELECT are from this project.  

Klara Hobza, Quixotic Obstacle Course, 2010 C-print, Photo Credit:  Julia Buennagel Klara Hobza, Quixotic Obstacle Course, 2010
Photo Credit: Julia Buennagel

WPA: Do you find your decision-making process to be more methodical and deliberate or intuitive, and perhaps even impulsive?

Dr. Brandon Fortune: I would like to say that I am guided by deliberate and linear thought processes, but really, I guess I work through educated intuition!

Gregory Volk: Deliberate and intuitive, yes.  Methodical and impulsive, no. As with all exhibitions, my choices for SELECT also have a practical aspect: what was available, and doable.  

WPA: What advice do you have for artists?

Dr. Brandon Fortune: Work as hard as you can to master your medium, whatever it is, and follow your heart in deciding on your subject.

Gregory Volk:  I’ll answer this, sort of, with another quote from Emerson’s The Poet: “Every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison. Therefore we love the poet, the inventor, who in any form, whether in an ode, or in an action, or in looks and behavior, has yielded us a new thought.”

Find out more about the art, artists, and curators and get your ticket for the March 22 Auction + Gala here:



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March 5, 2014