Lisa Kurzner in conversation with curators Megan Lykins Reich and Rose Bouthillier
Several of the artists featured in How to Remain Human span multiple generations, but many share an interest in the political, the confrontational, and the participatory in their work. Have these features been chosen in light of d.a. levy’s poetry?
Levy is a key figure in the exhibition. He was someone who was truly all-in, an artist who lived and breathed his work. The show’s title is drawn from his poem Suburban Monastery Death Poem, an epic work that brings to life a range of his desires and frustrations with the world at that time. He battled, protested, resisted, and ultimately insisted on other ways to live and make. Like levy, many artists in the exhibition express sociopolitical viewpoints through their work, but in very different ways. Cara Benedetto considers power relationships (artistic, sexual, economic) through language and curated events, while Michelangelo Lovelace examines morality, community, and progress in expressive figurative paintings. Like levy, the exhibition is aggressive and lyrical, sharp and supple. There is also something very private and vulnerable about levy’s work that is reflected in other artists’ work, such as Mary Ann Aitken and Carmen Winant. And of course, the humor, which is palpable in works by Dylan Spaysky, Derf Backderf, and Harris Johnson.
Following upon that, can we conclude that you, as curators, selected artists for whom the generation of 1968 was an important touchstone?
This wasn’t a conscious distinction, but 1968 does have a significant place; it’s the year that levy died and it’s the year that Jae Jarrell, along with her husband Wadsworth, and other collaborators, were formulating AfriCOBRA. That moment also was a breaking point in art, one of great destabilization and expansion in new directions. For some of the younger artists in the show, that moment of urgency is perhaps revisited and romanticized.
This show follows the earlier Realization is Better than Anticipation, which also featured artists from Cleveland and several neighboring hubs in Ohio and the Midwest, including Pittsburgh and Detroit. Can you speak to what binds these cities culturally?
Resourcefulness is a binding characteristic. Passion is another. Although they are often lumped together under the “Rust Belt” moniker, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit (and Columbus) are very different cities, with diverse landscapes, communities, and cultural sensibilities. They share a rich industrial past with grand legacies, followed by waves of decline and attempts at reinvention. Another thing they share are some really incredible artists whose work and engagement often play a concerted role in the creation and health of their communities and discourse. These artists have chosen to operate outside of major metropolitan art centers, resulting in less infrastructure, support, and opportunity. The flip side of this is time, space, and freedom to create outside of explicit market pressures. And it’s not just artists. These cities are teeming with passionate, intelligent curators, writers, and designers who are making things happen with little resources and lots of capability. We want to connect these people, to help build an expanded sense of community that blurs boundaries and also acknowledges the realities of working “here.”
Do you see (as I do) regional centers as sites that easily foster communal activity in the cultural sector? What trends do you see among these artists who choose to develop their practices in these places?
Yes, there is definitely opportunity for communal activity, driven, it seems, by an honest desire to generate dialog and create community. Jae Jarrell helped form a significant historic collective in Chicago based on building power and strength through art. Artists here support one another, and most welcome opportunities to expand their creative reach together. The strange, hilarious videos and performances of dadpranks, a collective of six artists founded in Pittsburgh, is an excellent example of the benefits of communal making. Representing different disciplines, they come together for intense video-making sessions and create something they couldn’t do alone. Moreover, artists here wear different hats, at times out of necessity based on a weak support infrastructure. Spaysky and Ben Hall are both involved in running exhibition spaces in Detroit: Cave and Young World, respectively. Christi Birchfield is deeply involved with Zygote Press in Cleveland. Jimmy Kuehnle founded the online journal ArtHopper to foster art criticism within the Lake Erie region. Such communal activities help advance the public value of contemporary art here and beyond.
Artists responding to community seem to have a more cogent audience in regional centers, such as those treated in the show. Can you discuss group participation here (Kuehnle, dadpranks, etc.)?
Audiences here are hungry for opportunities to connect with creativity and help drive momentum towards growth. There is also a palpable sense of community pride, and community concern; audiences really respond to art that reflects on their environment and experience. Kuehnle and dadpranks put works in public space, but in ways that confuse as much as they allure. Lovelace, Backderf, and Hall all engage the streets where we live and the people that we meet. Engagement is a strategy to create dialog. The more audiences open up, the richer the potential.
Narrative and literature seep into this show from many angles, and several generational points of view. Can you expand upon the artist and viewer’s recognition of the very active role narrative plays in contemporary art?
Narrative is a central through line in How to Remain Human. But the artists engage narrative in very different ways, often inviting the viewer to complete the story or consider the construct itself. Lovelace is colloquial and autobiographical; Backderf is deadpan humor of the everyday; Benedetto uses language to confuse/intrigue and give voice to women’s desire; Jarrell incorporates elements of protest and history; levy’s poems chronicle inner and outward turmoil. All of them share an interest in the personal, which also comes through in Aitken’s paintings and the films of Kevin Jerome Everson. Everson, however, offers examples of how narrative can be broken and used to examine the medium itself – how elements of time and progress in film can be disrupted, repeated, or turned to question conventions and labels. In the broader field of contemporary art, we see narrative playing an increasing role; constructed fictions, re-telling and re-constructing histories, documentary approaches, and socially engaged practices.
And, pursuant to that, can you speak to the evolution of protest language in art, from the 60s to today in the context of the show? How has the role of social responsibility shifted in context of public to private interpretations over the past generations?
The language of protest has taken many forms and shapes in contemporary art since the 60s. Where to begin? You can think about someone like the late Corita Kent, whose retrospective MOCA hosted last summer. She was using a very pop aesthetic, mixing advertising slogans and biblical verse to protest against many injustices. Keith Haring developed an ebullient, illustrative aesthetic that included language to promote life, unity, acceptance, and love in the face of the AIDS crisis. Artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer used language more subversively to convey sociopolitical and cultural concerns. Artists such as Sharon Hayes and Sam Durant quote from the past to address historical amnesia and ongoing inequity. Today there is a prevalent sense of social responsibility, engagement, and activism in the international contemporary art world. While How to Remain Human includes artists who respond directly and stridently to sociopolitical conditions, we deliberately positioned such work in conversation with artists who resist, or persist, in subtler, more delicate ways. Claiming humanness for yourself and others can also happen on a very small and quiet scale, through daily practice and poetics.
In what ways do the less narrative artists communicate this idea of “humanness” or emotional rawness through their treatment of paint and material surfaces? Do you believe that artists using this sort of visceral physical language emote more personal rawness than others for whom the hand is less present?
“Humanness” is such a fluid and nuanced concept; our focus on raw, messy, and direct material expressions explores one facet of it. It’s not necessarily more or less personal, but it does speak to a certain spectrum of experience: urgency, immediacy, contact, humor, being present. Wild materials require an active hand, negotiation, and questioning. The results often emphasize process, variability, and vulnerability. Birchfield’s practice is highly physical; her materials have body. This exhibition will include new soft sculptures, where she responds to the fabric’s slack and unpredictable weight, forming a skeleton that hangs evocatively. In Johnson’s expansive painting practice, he uses spontaneity to investigate humor, impulse, and the legacy of expressionism. In Aitken’s paintings, the thick, lumpy layers of paint evoke concentrated time and deeply personal introspection. Winant literally rips and kneads advertising pictures of hands and bodies in an intuitive, physical exercise of re-imaging the female body.
How to Remain Human is curated by Megan Lykins Reich, Deputy Director of Program, Planning, and Engagement, and Rose Bouthillier, Associate Curator, with Elena Harvey Collins, Curatorial Assistant
How to Remain Human opens on June 12, 2015 and will be on view throughout the museum until Sept. 6, 2015.
Stop by MOCA Cleveland for the opening night celebration:
7:00 PM: Curator’s Talk + Family Art Studio (Free + Open to the Public)
8:00 – 10:00 PM: Opening Night Party with live music from These Knees, followed by Hybrid Shakedown
Lisa Kurzner is an independent curator based in Cleveland. She specializes in photography and contemporary art. View more articles by Lisa Kurzner.