Note: The post below was an article I submitted in 2010 to the blog Postcuratorial.com, before its author had to abandon it for other projects. Since it never saw the light of day, or more accurately, the backlight of a computer screen, I've decided to upload it here, with a few slight revisions.
A repetitive theme in exhibitions is something I have started to refer to as “assignments,” typically, a curator comes up with a very specific duty to be completed by artists as the basis for an exhibition. Assignments generally focus on a specific material, such as aprons, or actions in which artists are assigned the task of making work around this concept for an exhibition. Artists tend to respond in one of two manners – those eager to build their resumes, return to their studios to complete the project, others saunter home, to forget about their homework until the last minute, upon which they throw together something disappointing.
There is something enjoyable and stimulating about occasional participation in such an exhibition. As an artist, I’ve even participating in some (see above image). Given the right circumstances, there can be benefits to the artist. I have found the occasional assignment can provide a challenge that encourages experimentation or open up a new direction in my work. Interesting discussions may ensue when different artists confront the same project.
I was recently (in 2011) met the coordinator of an upcoming juried show that explored the idea of women looking at men, who encouraged me to enter. (I should note here, as someone who has organized exhibitions, there is often a fear that there will be lack of submissions, or a lack of good submissions, and so I understand where she was coming from). I replied that I felt that I could not, as the central concept didn't fit into my body of work. She gushed, "Oh, but this is an opportunity to make something new!" and went on to describe the project she was planning to enter, which sounded great. And I concede her point, but I find myself thinking, don't I have that opportunity every day I go into the studio?
From a curator’s point of view, I can also see the appeal: upon successful completion, a curator has a cohesive exhibition. For some artist-curators, such as Little Berlin’s Offerings it can be a fun experiment and easily promoted to the press. However, I believe this concept has been largely critically unexamined.
In traditional art school, professors require students to learn specific techniques (ie. plaster casting) through projects, for the purpose of building knowledge for later use in their emerging visual voice. Past art school, what is implied when curators feel they can give artists homework?
Often these exhibitions are a means of fundraising, though I cannot comment on their success rate. However I must wonder if it is beneficial for both collectors and artists to have artwork purchased that may be outside of the artist’s oeuvre? When boiled down, I believe the real question is, will artwork created for such a project stand on its own, outside of the assignment-exhibition?
As an artist, I want to make focused bodies of work. Personally, I only have so much time to do so, as everything takes longer than I ever think it will. When I was a younger artist, I was more willing and eager to take part in such assignments, but now I feel that for me, they are distractions from making the real work. If such an assignment fits into my overall focus, which means that I am working with a thoughtful curator, it is worth it. It also suggests to me that the final exhibition will be a considered set of ideas, rather than a hodge-podge of miscellany.