synthetic zero

April 17th, 2009

I’ve always resisted having a theme for my shows.  It’s not that I’m opposed to all art shows with a theme, as that would mean being opposed to nearly every art show, since they almost all have themes. But I find that quite a few shows suffer from the “contrived theme syndrome” — the curation doesn’t really have an organic coherence, but rather the works just seem to be selected because they share a certain curatorial ingredient on a superficial level.  For this and other reasons I personally eschew having an explicit theme for my shows (not that I will never have a theme in the future — it’s just that, so far, I haven’t felt moved to do so) — yet, despite this, my shows do tend to hang together organically, often surprisingly so, perhaps driven by a combination of synchronicity and my own curatorial instincts.

For example, one of my pet peeves are the (to my mind) awful theme shows often on display at the Whitney.  They might have one really great show devoted to a single artist, then on floors 2 and 3 a couple of generic “theme” shows (such as the shows they have up now).  The theme only serves as an artificial contrived overlay, in my view, grouping together work in a rather haphazard manner.  The work itself is usually quite good, taken individually, but as a collection it makes me think of “Iron Chef Art”!  Everything has to have the same ingredient!

Curation for me is a form of art, a show is an artwork in its own right.  My objection to having a conscious theme is the same as my objection to programmatic music or fiction with a “point”.  One of my favorite essays on a related idea is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” … as she puts it, most bad stories she comes across are “essays with a plot”.  Naturally, this doesn’t mean stories never ought to have a title, or that titles are always contrived — it’s just that I see this too much in shows and I want to avoid that in my shows.

I’ve seen themes that work quite well, of course.  In fact Laura’s show, Stranger Than Fiction, that’s up now in my space (open through the 23rd, email me if you’d like to see it), works very well, as do a lot of other shows — one of my favorites was a show I saw years ago, in Portland, called “The Map Show” … the theme was maps.  It was very low key and DIY, but the work was excellent, one of the best art shows I’ve seen anywhere, in fact. A wide variety of different work on the theme of maps, accompanied by experimental film. But, in that case, the artists actually created work FOR the show, for the most part.

I suppose it may be that I’m not so much opposed to theme shows as I’m opposed to bad shows, and most shows are bad in my opinion; and many are bad because of the contribution of the “theme” towards a contrived and arid experience. Perhaps, if I ever decide to title or “theme” one of my shows in future, I’ll choose to do so after the show has come together, like an author who titles her story after writing it. That’s far more likely than me titling a show in advance.

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