Friday I wandered through Eugene to get a sense of what is showing around town this month. As I perused different galleries, one question that came to mind is, ‘what makes a successfully cohesive show?’ I’m not sure that I would be able to comprise a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, a checklist of what and what not to do. I don’t think I would want to be that restricting. However, there are certain things that I can confidently say do and do not work in the shows I visited. I will use three venues as examples: Maude Kerns Art Center, Fenario Gallery, and Opus6ix.
Maude Kerns is currently showing two group shows, Juxtaposed: Sculpture and Installation, and Multiples X 3: A Collaborative Installation. I expect Maude Kerns to be able to put together a cohesive group show since this is what the center specializes in. Group shows can be tricky, especially when the artists did not collaborate to make work that fits together. The job then falls on the curator to compile a group of work that creates a dialog. The more intelligently the grouping is formed, the more inspiring the dialog between the artwork becomes.
Juxtaposed did not offer any challenges, and therefore as a grouping was satisfactory, however not entirely interesting. That is not to say that some of the work was not engaging, it is only that as a whole, the show was relatively straightforward. The work was merely what is the show title implies – some sculpture and some installation. The quality of the work was consistent, if not the style or conceptual considerations of the artists. As a group, nothing seemed particularly out of place or redundant. It made sense, but I was not really challenged to think of much beyond, ‘these were the strongest artists that we came across that fit the theme of this show,’ ultimately not a thought that renders the show entirely memorable.
Multiples X 3 inspired more of a dialog between the work of the three artists. Each artist’s work represented a month of creative process. Now we are on to something. The work, ranging from small sculptures, to drawings to paintings, was not consistent as far as the quality – some seemed as though quick sketches, some fully realized work. But each fulfilled its part by telling a piece of the story. Each piece had a reason to be there, a purpose that added to the whole. This show compelled me to take on each of the artist’s work individually, then to step back and figure how they fit in with each other. It inspired me to look into the thought processes behind the show by stopping my attention to read the statement. I looked to the text not as a straw of understanding that needed to be grasped in order to relate to the work, but as a desire to delve into another layer of meaning. Of all the shows I visited, this one was the most successful, the most compelling.
Mark Flores’ show, Zen Schism: Void & Suffusion, at Fenario Gallery suffered from a similar problem as Maude Kern’s Juxtaposed. Fenario Gallery is seductive from the outside. It is a beautiful space, a large open gallery free from distractions. The lighting is good. The space exudes a professional quality that lures me in. But, this time, I was not satisfied with the results once I did walk in. Upon closer examination, Mark Flores’ black tempera paintings on paper disappoint. They do not hold up to the professional quality of the look of the gallery itself. Nor do they hold up to the paintings own frames. Both the frames and the space usurp the attention from the paintings.
The forty paintings shown were very consistent. In fact, they were too consistent. By the time I looked at three and felt as if I had seen them all. They did not tell pieces of the whole story, but instead all told the same story. Therefore Zen Schism seemed an exercise in redundancy. I tried to find another window into the work by visiting the statement on the wall, but this too was tedious. I did not make it through the first paragraph before skimming the rest quickly. I left the gallery with a feeling of dissatisfaction in that the actual work did not deliver what was implied by the enticing presentation.
The third venue, Opus6ix, housed the least successful show. Walking through the crowded main gallery to get to the back is enough to make me want to turn away to rush out the door. The hodgepodge stacking and packing of art on every surface available is distracting and sends the message that the art available is merely tchotchke. Yet I persevered to the gallery in the back that featured the work of Barry Geller.
On one wall hung portraits of track and field Olympic trials contenders. The other three walls held a series Artists in Cars. I stood in the gallery confused. What were these portraits doing with the artists in cars? How do they relate? In fact, is this work even by the same artist? Because I had to ask these questions, this show did not work in the least as a cohesive body of work.
The work in the gallery, as I later discovered, is indeed by the same artist. There were two separate statements for the work, one for Artists in Cars and the other, Heroes of the Trials. Finally my question was answered – the two bodies of work do not relate but for the fact they were made by the same artist: there remained no dialog between the two bodies of work. In fact, they seemed to cancel each other out.
Why is it important for a gallery to curate a cohesive body of work? First is to avoid relegating art to decoration, trinket or tchotchke. Opus6ix’s presentation is that of an art store. It’s a place to buy objects that may or may not also be art. However a gallery should offer the viewer the experience of the power and beauty that the art can have that goes far beyond being merely a decorative object. The art object itself, much of the time, is the by-product of an artist’s extensive thought process that takes on a physical presence through the process of skilled creativity. A well-curated show offers the viewer a layered experience. It inspires thought through illuminating the concepts with which the artist is grappling in a visually and compelling way that includes each artwork’s relationships to the others around it.
Experiencing a show that makes no cohesive sense is similar to the experience of listening to a speaker spout non sequitur after non sequitur. No dialog can take place in a situation where one party is struggling just to follow and make sense of the other. A show that has no variation, however, is redundant and dull. In this situation, the art becomes a monotone drone that puts the viewer to sleep. A good gallery should take on the responsibility of offering the entire story of the art as well as offering possibilities that exist beyond the intended ones. A poorly curated show can render otherwise compelling work less inspiring if grouped together carelessly with other work, while a brilliantly curated show can expose subtle layers within the work and make it truly unforgettable. Artwork cannot be taken in as if it were in a vacuum. The environment in which it is experienced has a great impact on the work itself, and that includes the artwork hanging in its vicinity more so than the walls of the venue itself.