Monday, September 27, 2010

How Much Work Is Too Much to Install? | Open Thread

I'm a big believer in "a little goes a long way" or "less is more" when it comes to how much work to include in a gallery installation. I use this inclination, as well as the belief that so long as it doesn't affect an artist's concept, how much work you "should" install for any given show is best guided by one hard and fast rule--the show as a whole must work and look as good as it can--to guide me when, in the thick of it, it's hard to decide whether that last piece stays or goes.

In all my years of installing emerging artist's work (this tends to be less of an issue with more established artists, and probably because if they're selling regularly, they don't often have as much work available for each solo gallery exhibition), I've rarely found that an artist didn't want to include as much work as possible in a show. I guess I get that. Each work was labored over and you'd like each to be seen, but often the rationale I hear for including more work than I personally feel the room can hold boils down to "I really want to include this one too."

This often leads to a discussion about how we present the work as a whole in such a way that each work included looks its best. I sincerely believe that even great work can be made to look less than its best by overhanging or poor juxtaposition choices and that how comfortable a viewer is in a space will psychologically impact how they perceive the quality of the work.

Having said that, two exhibitions I've seen recently needed to include the large number of pieces they do to work as well as they do conceptually. Neither was about accumulation, per se. Each included individual works, any one of which could stand fine on its own. But each exhibition also dealt with a subject that required the viewer to be convinced by the sheer volume of evidence.

The first show was the gorgeous suite of new "Black Cowboys" photographs by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher at Sonnabend Gallery. When Bambino and I first toured the exhibition at the opening, I was taken by the individual images. They're powerfully composed portraits of strong, proud individuals, some of them including fantastic action shots of highly dangerous sports. But after we chatted with others a bit, it dawned on me that why this exhibition worked was the sheer number of individual portraits presented.

Robbin and Becher's objective in presenting so many seems to be so it slowly dawns on you that not only are you not accustomed to seeing a black cowboy (i.e., an African American in a ten-gallon hat, riding a horse, wearing chaps, and/or lassoing a cow or riding a bull), but the fact that there are so very many individual black cowboys out there makes you begin to feel that it must have taken quite some concerted effort to keep such images from you over the years. In America, photographs of white cowboys are absolutely everywhere: on billboards, magazines, TV, t-shirts, CD covers, movies, you name it. But to see these black cowboys really is a jarring experience. Without the sheer quantity of images, I don't think why would have sunk for me as it did. I left the exhibition telling everyone who'd listen that the installation was genius.

The other exhibition that works in a similar fashion is the solo show by Yevgeniy Fiks at Temple Gallery that we went down to Philadelphia to see on Friday. I felt at the opening (and said to curator Stamatina Gregory) that quantity was important to this exhibition. That without an overwhelming amount of evidence it was too easy to dismiss the notion that perhaps there really was a conspiracy to wreck havoc in the US via Modern art. What so much evidence eventually does to you here, though, is brilliantly tied into its subject matter. Edith Newhall, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer that "shows of conceptual art rarely get this kind of space anymore," had a similar take to mine:

Fiks' "Communist Conspiracy in Art Threatens American Museums," which was organized by the independent curator and critic Stamatina Gregory, has the entire, almost brand-new Temple Gallery - which can easily accommodate three solo shows - to itself.

This largesse turns out to have been the best approach to Fik's work. Viewers can experience the cohesiveness and obsessiveness of his ideas through his various projects installed in Temple Gallery's three large rooms. [...]

One could argue that Fiks takes some of his projects too far - we get the point already! - but he's clearly going for the hypnotic overdose, intentionally simulating the effect of brainwashing. And it works: You leave this show wondering how an installation whose individual components were so physically minimal and visually bland reeled you in with such force.
Consider this an open thread on installation choices with regards to quantity.

Labels: art viewing, installing art


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apologies, but I need to respond anonymously.

As an artist, I have learned over the years to do as much as I can to control the way my work is shown without alienating the dealer (whose taste I basically like, otherwise I wouldn't be with the gallery).

1. Discuss with the dealer beforehand how each of you sees the installation. I don't always end up with exactly what I want, but it's closer than if I've said nothing. I once made a scale model of the gallery and said, "Let's figure out where we want to put the work." On the other hand, there are some galleries that always surprise me in a great way.

2. Limit the amount of work you send. Back when the economy was blazing and the art was jumping off the walls, I could send more than would be hung because collectors liked having a backroom choice. (They usually bought a lot at once, too.) After the economy tanked I entered one installation of my work and found that everything was crammed onto the walls. I was horrified. Almost nothing sold (though that may have been more about the economy than the installation).

3. Dealers and curators tend to have a "style" of installation, even though the style of each artist may vary. Some like the rhythm of spare followed by cluster. Others like totally minimal. Others
take the more-is-never-enough approach. As an artist I have to figure out how to be clear about what I want for my work, and be diplomatic about it. I know that curators have their vision, too.

Generally speaking, though, I think the old show-business adage works for exhibitions, too: Leave the audience wanting more.

9/27/2010 02:09:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

That's a great list of things to keep in mind, Anonymous. Thanks.

Another I've heard from dealers (and just so artists know) is that they spend everyday watching how people move around their space...which walls are generally the ones people will pass by, all else being equal, where visitors are most or least comfortable standing to contemplate the work (i.e., not where a light that was needed to make a work pop is hitting them in the eye, there's glare from he street certain times of day, the heat or AC makes one corner less than comfortable, etc.)or other such issues. It's good to know how, as an artist, your work presents best, but do listen to the dealer who knows their space best too.

9/27/2010 02:56:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, Ed and Anon. To respond to your knowing where and how people look: At a gallery where I show there's a "magic wall" where everything that's put there sells. It's just large enough to hold one mid-size painting (it's two sided: one side is within the display window that faces the street--the "magnetic wall," if I may describe it so, since it pulls people into the gallery--and the inside "magic wall."

So in addition to Anon's showbiz adage, I'd add one from real estate. Location, location. location.

9/27/2010 04:01:00 PM  

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