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Eye Exam: Friends Curating Friends

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At "Shit Is Real," Devening Projects + Editions

At “Shit Is Real,” Devening Projects + Editions

By Pedro Vélez

Gallery hopping in Chicago can be a real pain in the ass since there is not a single substantial gallery district where to spend a Saturday afternoon. Art spaces are spread all over town and to reach at least a handful of them one must do it by car. What we do have are conglomerates, kind of like pimple colonies where a few successful commercial galleries are surrounded by a bunch of alternative spaces that seem to grow out of nowhere every two years, making themselves visible in a blemish and vanishing away without notice. It’s a gallery scene in eternal puberty. Consider yourself lucky if in four hours you manage to see at least ten galleries.

That is why I cringe every weekend when I receive invites to see exhibitions curated by my friends’ friends. I do so because the people curating my friends are my friends too. Which means I must make an effort to see my friends in their friends’ show if I don’t want to offend them or their friends. The fact that I might have seen my friends’ work in a dozen shows through the year is no excuse for missing their new thing. So I do what everybody else does, inhale, put lotion on the palm of my hand, and pat my friends on the back, and their friends’ backs too, for a job “well done.”

In the past year some of the names that have appeared and re-appeared in the scene, draped in the curatorial mantle, belong to painters. Take Geoffrey Todd Smith, for example, who just curated a show about plants at Western Exhibitions (where I was formerly an exhibiting artist four years ago). There he included Tyson Reeder and Scott Wolniak, friends who need no new introductions to the scene alongside a few other of his friends. In his role as an artist, Todd Smith has been highly visible too in the imagist revival “Afterimage” at the DePaul Art Museum and a couple of shows in Milwaukee curated by his friends, Tyson Reeder and José Lerma.

Drawing by Anthony Elms at "Drawer's Drawings"

Drawing by Anthony Elms at “Drawer’s Drawing”

Another painter/curator is Carrie Gundersdorf. She co-curated “Observer Effect” at UIC’s Gallery 400 just as she was also co-curating “Drawer’s Drawing” with Eric Lebofsky at Julius Caesar and Peregrine Program concurrently. If you don’t happen to be in the know, let me tell you that these two small venues coexist under the same roof somewhere in Garfield Park. In “Drawer’s Drawing,” Gundersdorf included work by Leslie Baum, who currently has a big presence next to New York-based hotshot Brian Kokoska at LVL3’s  “Post Hope” in Wicker Park. (“Post Hope” is a real painter’s painting show and no one should miss it.) Gundersdorf has also included small ink drawings by current Whitney Biennial curator Anthony Elms. He used to be an assistant curator at UIC’s Gallery 400 not long ago. For the few people who have never met Elms, the artist, this exhibition will not give you a clear idea of his practice since there’s just not enough of him to see. Which is pretty much part of the problem with these shows of friends curating friends. One never gets to see a complete body of work but a small piece here and there, leaving viewers high and dry with an impossible puzzle to solve.

I don’t really have a problem with being generous when returning favors. Neither with the reasoning behind building incestuous art communities—everyone does what they must to survive. The problem I see here specifically has to do with perception. Tapping Elms at this historical moment seems like an opportunistic move on the curator’s part to show off or to align themselves with the powers that be. Which, in turn, alienates even more people who have no friends or who are not your friends’ friends.

"Post Hope," works by Leslie Baum and Brian Kokoska at LVL3 Gallery

“Post Hope,” works by Leslie Baum and Brian Kokoska at LVL3 Gallery

Anyhow, a few blocks down the road from Julius Caesar and Peregrine Program, in what could pass for the smallest alternative gallery district in the country, you can also find Gundersdorf exhibiting some work in a show titled “Shit is Real” at Devening Projects + Editions. There you can also find Josh Reames, who is the director of alternative space Manifest Exhibitions. Tyson Reeder, Eric Lebofsky and many of his advisers and peeps from SAIC’s painting and drawing department have shown there too. But what’s surreal here is that if I keep naming names and the relationships of the people exhibiting alongside Gundersdorf at Devening, my list will eventually lead to Kevin Bacon.

Work by Leslie Baum at "Drawer's Drawing"

Work by Leslie Baum at “Drawer’s Drawing”

It may seem to you, dear reader, that my list is long, but it isn’t; it’s always the same people wearing different hats. Some have implied this “friends curating friends” predicament is similar to what happens in Bushwick. However, at least in New York you can easily escape into many other scenes. But in a small gallery scene like Chicago’s, these types of navel-gazing endeavors simply clog exhibition venues and make things predictable and boring. There’s only so much any curator can really achieve by pulling from his/her vault of friends. And the idea that one can presumably create new contexts for a handful of friends while hundreds of artists in this artist-packed city of ours undeservedly never get a show is preposterous. It’s not enough to have good intentions; as a curator, one must do the legwork, conduct full-blown research and exploit untapped local resources. There is no excuse to not do so. After all, curating is the easiest and cheapest thing one can accomplish in Chicago, and the fact that today’s most radical exhibits are being organized by our museums and not by the alternative spaces pretty much tells the story of an amateur class. What is worse, friends curating friends alienates this gallery scene even more from the broader national conversation.

12 Responses to “Eye Exam: Friends Curating Friends”

  1. jusme Says:

    Typographical errors aside, this is just silly. The first thing I was taught is to not wait for success, but to go out and make it happen for myself: show where I can, show with friends, curate people whose work I like, and build a community. To complain that someone else isn’t broad enough for you is basically abnegating your own responsibility for your own work being shown. And the throw-away line, “curating is the easiest and cheapest thing one can accomplish in Chicago” can only be written by someone wholly lacking in any real experience putting together a show. In the words of the commentators on the NFL Network, “C’mon Man!”

  2. criticismism » Blog Archive » Found Objects 06/02/13 Says:

    [...] Velez is tired of “friends curating friends” and explains in Newcity Art that the situation is endemic in [...]

  3. Found Objects 06/02/13 | Nick Socrates Contemporary Art Says:

    [...] Velez is tired of “friends curating friends” and explains in Newcity Art that the situation is endemic in [...]

  4. condenao Says:

    I agree with making it happen, but Pedro hit it right on the head.

  5. phyllis bramson Says:

    Yikes, this took a lot of guts to write… have read and heard that you can be tough and “ruff”! (Glad I haven’t experienced it, or have I?) You gave, now using my own words… the bottom line, that this is a small inverted community that often likes to lick itself. And jusme, I wish you would at least acknowledge that Pedro is delivering some unwanted to be acknowledged complaints, because I think that Pedro does understand what “is”. But since he often dishes it out, he probably expected to be hit back.

  6. Abby Thomas Says:

    The content is indisputable. Thank you for your candor. The level of self-congratulatory, self-promotion in the Chicago art community is approaching incestuous. The whining is deafening.

    Will the appointment of Michelle Grabner as a visiting Whitney curator exacerbate the local artist (and gallerist) navel gazing. Will the great expanse between Pittsburgh and Reno suddenly become the Kimberly Mines of artistic discovery? Not likely. Even now Chicago artists are jockeying for attention or confiding their inclusion in the next Biennial.

    It would be easy to extend this critique to the few “important” galleries in Chicago, and there are very few.

  7. Paul Germanos Says:

    The Chicago Problem: An Open Letter in Response to Pedro Velez

  8. Chicago Art Drama | thecontrerasgabrielproject Says:

    [...] Friends Curating Friends, a recent article in New City Art puts our little shindig in a box of incestuous blemishes that are a sign of “a gallery scene in eternal puberty.” Pedro Vélez implies that small, alternative spaces are a burden because too many of his friends have shows on the same night and it’s painful for him to drive around the city to see them all. I see alternative spaces like Pig and Weasel as bubbles of activity in a kettle that’s about to boil, pulling networks together in the vacuum left by the last, popped bubble. As co-owners Todd and Monica Rogers say, it’s where ideas pop and dreams fly. [...]

  9. Cultivating an Art Scene at Pig and Weasel | thecontrerasgabrielproject Says:

    [...] Friends Curating Friends, a recent article in New City Art puts our little shindig in a box of incestuous blemishes that are a sign of “a gallery scene in eternal puberty.” Pedro Vélez implies that small, alternative spaces are a burden because too many of his friends have shows on the same night and it’s painful for him to drive around the city to see them all. I see alternative spaces like Pig and Weasel as bubbles of activity in a kettle that’s about to boil, pulling networks together in the vacuum left by the last, popped bubble. As co-owners Todd and Monica Rogers say, it’s where ideas pop and dreams fly. [...]

  10. ianwartist Says:

    Thanks for the article. I do think, though, that the condition you describe is really no different in any other major metropolitan area. If you take Chelsea away from NYC, you have a very spread out art scene, including galleries in every borough (which, also, cannot be easily traversed without a car). L.A. is even worse; try to get on the Santa Monica Freeway to see a friends show from L.A. anytime after 2:30 in the afternoon. I believe we have two very active districts, the West Loop and River North. On an active opening night, West Loop is teeming with galleries to look at, and you can easily spend 4 hours looking at work. River North is much smaller, granted, but it is a viable option for seeing multiple galleries in one walkable area. No district is like Chelsea, but size isn’t everything. I find that Chelsea isn’t as interesting and varied as the West Loop can be; it obviously caters to a more blue-chip product. Finally, to this issue of gallery longevity: this is hardly exclusively a Chicago problem. In fact, the list is long with gallerists at different levels who’ve made commitments to this city for decades (Aron Packer, who’s been around for, like, 20 years; Rhona Hoffman, who once was in partnership with Donald Young decades ago; Carl Hammer; Kavi; Carrie; Three Walls and a number of other alternative spaces). And speaking of the alternative spaces, I think it’s healthy to have that mix of blue-chip, established galleries alongside startups that have a shorter run; it keeps the scene active, and each offer checks and balances on the other. It is vital to the health of any art district, we can’t just have all established galleries in any city’s scene. Chicago, honestly, is so small compared to the other two major cities that getting around to see shows outside of those two big districts, I find, is not that big a deal, and I don’t own a car. I don’t try to see everything in one evening, even in the same district. But when I do go to different areas, it is nice to see the rest of the city (Pilsen, Bridgeport, West Side, Hyde Park, Oak Park, etc). I sometimes feel confined when I walk around Chelsea, same kind of work, same 10 block or so radius, not much else. It’s nice to exit a space and be in a different neighborhood, I think.

  11. ianwartist Says:

    …also, all of my commentary focused on the statements in your opening paragraph.
    However, I should add that I wholly agree with the actual thesis of your writing (at least as I interpret it): namely, that the local art scene is incestuous and does not benefit from artists curating friends into shows. I agree that it does undermine the rigor of a curatorial practice and reduces a serious art town to a small, “folksy” place.

  12. State of mind | Oregon ArtsWatch Says:

    [...] of a smaller town, yet I see the same thing in Portland, just as I witnessed it in Chicago (and it apparently continues). Sometimes it takes a little longer for it to happen in a bigger city than in a small town, but [...]

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