Sunday, August 13, 2017

20/20 Exhibit Creates Visual Dialogue to Promote Exchange of Ideas about Art and Life

Ellen Gallagher, DeLuxe, 2005 (detail), Portfolio of sixty photogravure, etching, aquatint, and drypoints with lithography, screenprint, embossing, tattoo-machine engraving, laser cutting, and chine collĂ©; some with additions of Plasticine, paper collage, enamel, varnish, gouache, pencil, oil, polymer, watercolor, pomade, velvet, glitter, crystals, foil paper, gold leaf, toy eyeballs, and imitation ice cubes, © Ellen Gallagher and Two Palms Press, Photo: D. James Dee

A unique collaboration between the Carnegie Museum of Art and The Studio Museum in Harlem is bringing together the works of 20 artists, many of them artists of color, from each museum. The intent is to feature a diverse array of makers to create a metaphoric picture of the U.S. by mapping the many ways artists respond to social and political conditions that shape our lives.

The exhibition spans a nearly 100 year long timeline, from the 1920s photos of Harlem-based James VanDerZee to a 2016 CMOA acquisition by acclaimed contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall.
While the exhibition’s title evokes a simple premise - twenty artists from each institution - it also proposes a test of our collective vision as a nation. The works are arranged thematically in sections that consider America’s democratic ideals, our histories of labor and economy, the country’s social and political landscapes, spiritual introspection, and forms of resistance.

CMOA's Curator of Contemporary and Modern Art Eric Crosby Credit: Bryan Conley

What follows is a Q & A with Eric Crosby, CMOA's Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. (See bio below).

Q: Eric, How did the collaboration come about between the two museums? What sparked the idea for this particular exhibition and will it later move to the Studio Museum of Harlem?

A: The exhibition is unique to Carnegie Museum of Art and Pittsburgh. It won’t travel to New York, but it has been great to see so much interest in the exhibition coming from all corners of our country. The genesis of the project was a conversation between myself and Amanda Hunt, the show’s co-curator. Amanda was formerly a curator at the Studio Museum. She is now the Director of Education and Public Programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. We were interested in using the idea of a group exhibition to describe some issues that challenge us as Americans today, and to take a broad look at notions of identity and social inequality as they resonate across our collections. The Studio Museum is undertaking an ambitious new building project, so they saw a real benefit to getting highlights from their collection out into the world. Amanda and I both felt that Pittsburgh was eager to take part in the conversation that this show prompts.

Horace Pippin, Abe Lincoln’s First Book, 1944, Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Same M. Winokur and James L. Winokur

Q: The first work that begins the exhibition narrative is a painting by Horace Pippin titled "Abe Lincoln’s First Book." In what way is this painting an apt starting point?

A: We discuss this painting in some depth in our gallery guide for the show, which is a conversation between the curators about the thematic arc of the exhibition. We were interested in taking this painting, which normally hangs in Carnegie’s collection galleries, and allowing it to speak to our current moment. We are living in a heated moment of debate and even protest in America. Amanda and I began organizing the exhibition as the Obama administration was coming to an end. We wanted to look back but also forward. In our moment of national and political transition, I think it is important to reflect on our shared values as Americans and the core principles of our liberal democracy. Pippen captures something of that in his painting of Abraham Lincoln as a young man in his sparse cabin reaching out for his first book—for knowledge and understanding—in the pitch dark of night.

Q: While the exhibit is sectioned into six themes, is their any particular way the viewing audience should navigate through the galleries?

A: That’s a good question, because while it is possible to chart out a thematic narrative for a show like this, ultimately visitors will take it in on their own terms and make their own connections, which is something we welcome and encourage. With a show like this, I think your experience can be different each time you visit the museum. It will be on view through December 2017.

Q: What are some of the things you hope the viewing public will gain by coming in to see the exhibit and how can they use insights they may have gained in both their personal lives and broader social and political landscape?

A: Curators often make exhibitions to explore a certain period in art history, an artist’s career, or a specific movement. With 20/20, we were more interested in creating a space for reflection and dialogue, so it’s not so much what visitors take away as what they bring to it that matters. The conversations that are happening here in and between artworks are the same kinds of conversations we are having at our dinner tables, at our places of work, worship, and gathering. I hope everyone can find something to identify with in the show. These are all artists reflecting on how social and political issues shape our lives and our participation in the public sphere. As citizens, we are all experts on that subject in our own way. Everyone will bring their own specific lens to 20/20.

Q: How were the works in the exhibition selected? What was the winnowing process?

A: It wasn’t so much winnowing from a very large list. Rather, the checklist grew organically, as individual works prompted new ideas and connections. We felt it was important to balance the representation of both collections, as well as feature works in a range of media from the last 100 years or so. As our core themes began to cohere, the selection process really snapped into focus around specific ideas that we felt were important to surface today. If we were to organize this show five years ago, or five years from now, I’m sure it would be very different.

Q: If the CMOA were to stage the exhibit solely with its own holdings, what would have been lost by not including the works by the artists from the Studio Museum?

A: Our motivation for the exhibition was to animate this idea of conversation in the museum, so without works from the Studio Museum, I suppose it would seem more like a monologue than a dialogue. We wanted to emphasize the idea of exchange—between artists, curators, institutions, and cities. The spirit of working together is vital for the project, and I hope that comes across in the exhibition we’ve created.

Eric Crosby is the Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Carnegie Museum of Art, where he has been on staff since 2015. He was previously Associate Curator, Visual Arts at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Past exhibitions and publications include Alison Knowles (2016), Ordinary Pictures (2016), Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting (2015; coordinating curator), Art Expanded, 1958-1978 (2014), Liz Deschenes: Gallery 7 (2014), Painter Painter (2013), and The Parade: Nathalie Djurberg with Music by Hans Berg (2011).

Noah Davis, Black Wall Street, 2008, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Gift of David Hoberman

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