Saturday, February 27, 2010

Cream of the Curators' Talk

Katzen Museum of American UniversityWhen I drove into the underground parking lot underneath American University's Katzen Arts Center last Thursday for the Curators' Talk for the WPA's much anticipated Cream exhibition and art auction, I knew that the joint was going to be packed to the gills: I was half an hour early and parking on the first level was already full.

I went up to the main floor, and immediately ran into Professor Chawky Frenn from GMU's Art School, who was taking one of his classes through the museum and to the lecture. Frenn, who is perhaps the DMV's most politically controversial painter, is also recognized by GMU as one of its best. Earlier this year he was one of the recipients of the Teaching Excellence Award at George Mason University.

Frenn is without a doubt one of the toughest political painters of his generation, and his beautiful classical paintings use the brush and style of the masters to bring forth devastating political and social commentary on paintings often too controversial (as Dartmouth found out a while back) for galleries and museums to offer in a conventional way.

The Katzen was packed to the gills. This is the 29th iteration of the WPA's annual fundraising auction. I've attended most of them since 1993 or so, and this instance was easily the most people, by far, that I've seen come to the Curators' talk.

With all due respect to the terrific curator team assembled this year by Lisa Gold, the hardworking director of the WPA, in my humble but brilliant opinion, the main reason that 67.2% of the people were there, was to see the work picked by and listen to the comments of one of the curators: ubercollector Mera Rubell. There were art dealers from as far as Philadelphia and Richmond who came to the talk and perhaps a chance to meet Rubell and slip her a business card.

The details of how Rubell became involved in the WPA auction this year and the gigantic effect that her presence has caused on the DC area art scene are somewhat chronicled here in my account of her epic "36 studios in 36 hours" marathon. They are also chronicled in her usual brooding style by Jessica Dawson for the Washington Post here.

As you constant readers know, Rubell had selected 16 artists for this exhibition, including one of my drawings. The Lenster was one of the "Sweet 16." By the way, great idea to a DC area photographer to do for DC Magazine or one of those glossies: remember the famous "Irascible 18" photograph?

Mera Rubell selecting a Lenny Campello drawing

Mera Rubell during her visit to my studio shows the drawing that she selected for the "Cream" exhibition (Photo by Jenny Yang)

I somewhat rushed through the exhibition, already worried that the auditorium was going to run out of seats. I noticed that a lot of unexpected but familiar DC area art scene A-listers were there, including not one but two Washington Post art critics (perhaps the first time in history that this has happened).

Can you begin to sense the impact that this woman is having upon our area's visual art scene? Look up ennui in your dictionary and feel it beginning to disintegrate.

I said hi to Mera, "how's the baby?" she asked. I told her that Little Junes is doing great. In fact, Anderson (Little Junes) has made me realize that his two sisters Vanessa and Elise were the babies from hell. The little fellow sleeps about 12 hours a night and he has been doing that most of his six months.

His older sisters are both in their twenties now and soon coming to DC to meet their little brother. They're both experienced models and thus if you know anyone who needs a model during the first week of March, let me know.

Vanessa Anne Campello

Vanessa Anne Campello de Kraus

Elise Lena Campello

Elise Lena Campello y Strasser

But I meander... I love that word "meander." It's the only thing that I remember from Greek architectural elements from art school and maybe the only architectural element that has an associated word meaning as well.

And so Chawky and I went into the auditorium and found a great sit in the middle, about three rows from the stage and right behind Alberto and Victoria F. Gaitan, both superbly talented DC area artists. Victoria is also one of the "Sweet 16."

The evening started with the presentation of the Alice Denney Award for Support of Contemporary Art to James F. Fitzpatrick, who is not only a wonderful asset to the DMV art scene, but also quite a funny guy. While Fitzpatrick was talking he kept accidentally fiddling with the computer keyboard on the podium, never realizing that he was giving us all a preview of the work about to be discussed, as the gigantic images rotated behind his back.

The curators (in alphabetical order) then started discussing their selected work. It started with Ken Ashton, a well-known DC area photographer and also a Museum Technician for Works on Paper at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Predictably, Ashton selected photographers for his picks, nearly all Corcoran alumni or staff. My favorite piece amongst his picks (and the potential steal of the auction) is Marissa Long's enigmatic photograph. I want to see more works by this artist.

Marissa Long

Marissa Long. Untitled (legs), 2006. Gelatin silver print. 8" x 10". Courtesy of the Artist. Retail Price: $300. Reserve Price: $150

I also have to admit that I was disappointed by the Matthew Girard photo that Ashton picked. I love Girard's fringe images and would have picked one of those edgy and super cool fringe people photos (Matt ferchristsakes get a website!).

My good friend Kristen Hileman, the new Curator of Contemporary Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art followed. She discussed her selection by smartly reading from her notes (and thus finishing within her allotted 10 minutes), and some cool museum wall-text jargon added a little curatorial speak to her selections, some of which "respond to idealism and order" and art that "conceal information as much as it reveals information." My favorite piece amongst her pieces, by far, was Erik Sandberg's gorgeous drawing "Consternation."

Carol K. Huh (who has a really sexy voice), the Assistant Curator of Contemporary Asian Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution and Joanna Marsh, the James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, followed.

From Huh's selections, my favorite was this interesting drawing on vellum by Jon Bobby Benjamin titled "The Burning of the Empire Absalom", which in spite of its cool title has nothing to do with Darth Vader or Star Trek.

From the very fair ("fair" as Lord Byron would have used the word) Joanna Marsh's selections, I liked Joseph Smolinski's purposefully illustrative graphite on paper titled "Stump", which according to Marsh is a "wry critique on cell phone towers."

Joseph Smolinski. Stump, 2006. Graphite on paper. 9" x 12". Courtesy of the Artist and Mixed Greens Gallery. Retail Price: $950 Reserve Price: $500

Next was Jock Reynolds, an effervescent past head of the WPA and now the Director of the Yale Art Gallery and an accomplished artist on his own right. Jock said that he had "worked with all the artists that he selected" and his selections certainly offered a "walk down memory lane" of DC's artistic foundations from the 70s and 80s. My favorite amongst his selections, however, is still quite a key figure in our area's art scene and easily one of its best-known and most creative sculptors. I'm talking about Jeff Spaulding's very sexy piece titled "Delirium."

Jeff Spaulding

Jeff Spaulding Delirium, 2006. Wood, polystyrene, rubber, plaster, and hydrocal. 6" x 7" x 18". Courtesy of the Artist and G Fine Art. Retail Price: $7,000. Reserve Price: $3,500.

Next was Charles Ritchie, who is an artist and the Associate Curator of Department of Modern Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Art. His breathtaking Astrid Bowlby selection was my favorite amongst his picks. I'm sending him mental commands for a studio visit to come visit me and see my drawings.

Mera Rubell was next.

This unassuming firecracker of a woman started by saying that she was "totally astonished at what I've found in this community."

She described her 36 hour studio-visiting adventure and observed that "the studio is the holiest of places, the inner sanctum", and admitted her challenges of selecting work by herself after 45 years of doing it as a team with her husband and then her children.

As she began to discuss her 16 selections (16 artists that is), Rubell started with m.gert barkovic (whom you may recall was one of my top picks at the last Artomatic). Her work, Rubell said, "Has the ability to capture power" and "managed to capture {Einstein's} theory."

Of Holly Bass's works, she noted that it is influenced by "the moment that she discovers her blackness [in the white neighborhood where she was raised]" and her piece "deals with change."

Judy Byron "is like a therapist; a talking healer!" She added humor by noting that Byron should "be involved in the Middle East negotiations because she can get people to kiss on the lips!"

My work then popped onto the screen behind her. A gigantic image of my Age of Obama - The Nobel Peace Prize, a million feet tall by a gazillion meters wide, was on the screen. She turned to it.

"This guy is out of control!" she exclaimed into the microphone.

She then described the events that I discussed here, noting that I was the last studio on their grueling 36 hour tour, and that I was also in the same delirious state as them, because I had also been up almost 36 hours creating artwork for them to see (because I had none to show them when I was notified of their visit - all my art was in Miami for the art fairs).

Mera Rubell, Lenny Campello and Lisa Gold

Lisa Gold and Mera Rubell with me during their visit to my studio (Photo by Jenny Yang)

"We were all so delirious that we laughed the whole time that we were there," she added.

She then described the drawing as "gorgeous" and "fantastic", recalling its association with my interest in Pictish culture and describing how the "beautiful nude figure" has the historical Obama acceptance speech tattooed onto her body echoing the ancient rites of carrying history on your body.

Age of Obama - Nobel Peace Prize

F. Lennox Campello. Age of Obama - The Nobel Peace Prize, 2009. Charcoal on paper. 14" x 7 ½". Courtesy of the Artist and Alida Anderson Art Projects. Retail Price: $500. Reserve Price: $250


She ended by asking the audience: "Do you know him? - I can't go to sleep without first reading his blog."

Holy shit, Mera Rubell, one of the planet's top art collectors, reads my blog... Good God Almighty, Great Balls of Fire...

Breathe deep Campello... more Rubell's picks to come and one more curator to report on; be fair.

Next Mera talked about Rafael J. Cañizares-Yunez, who is a new DMV artist, at least new to me. She said that his work was akin to Giacometti, but "more sexual" and "amazing."

Adam de Boer is a painter, a really good one, and Mera noted that "it takes lots of courage to take on painting in this time in history."

Of the tiny Mary Early she described her works as "amazing... monumental sculptures."

When Victoria F. Gaitán's striking images filled the screen behind her, Rubell went back into story-telling mode.

"We had to go through a brawl when we visited her apartment building," she said. "And yet, she is the most tender human being you've ever met!"

"An extraordinary performance," she noted. "Very, very exciting," she continued, "haunting images... it's like: Cindy Sherman, eat your heart out!"

Carol Brown Goldberg is "compelled" and "amazing" with "magical sculptures."

Pat Goslee is described as "sensitive." She then goes on to describe Goslee's work as "beautiful and extraordinary."

Jason Horowitz's studio is "wild." The work is described as "larger than life" and "amazing." That last adjective keeps coming back to describe the work that she has selected.

At Barbara Liotta's studio Rubell recalls an "intense conversation" dealing with the sense of the District's artistic relationship to New York's presence in the art world. And Liotta's does "magical things."

Patrick McDonough was "really mesmerizing" and Brandon Morse "does amazing things."

Dan Steinhilber's work was next. Rubell described him as "amazing and totally fantastic"; his work "creates a mystery and asks questions that then surprise you."

Dan Steinhilber

Dan Steinhilber
Untitled, 2009. Electric floor fan, bottomless trash can and bag. 120" x 30" x 30" (kinetic work, dimensions variable). Courtesy of the Artist and G Fine Art. Retail Price: $10,000. Reserve Price: $6,000

Lisa Marie Thalhammer was the last Rubell pick discussed. "Turns out," said Rubell, "that [Thalhammer's art], painted on a building, has caused crime in that area to come down."

And she was finished.

The last curator was N. Elizabeth Schlatter, the Deputy Director and Curator of Exhibitions at the University of Richmond Museums. She went back to curatorial museum jargon a little bit, discussing "human sustenance" and "environmental sustainability" and "ornamentation versus structure." Schlatter also did a good job of searching through the WPA Artfile to "discover" some new artists.

Her best pick?

Easy... the DMV's master performance artist who also happens to be a monster of a painter: Andrew Wodzianski.

Andrew Wodzianski

Andrew Wodzianski
House III version 2, 2009. White titanium oil on tinted canvas. 30" x 48". Courtesy of the Artist and Fraser Gallery. Retail Price: $3,000. Reserve Price: $900

And it was all over. And I mulled the fact that Mera Rubell's curatorial picks had such a distinct and unique flavor from all the other curators, that in my biased opinion they clearly reflected the huge differences between the way that a world-class collector sees artwork and the way that an academic museum curator sees artwork.

They are worlds apart; the museum curator's eye often drifts too far to the side of the mind's conceptualism, ideas and the way that ideas can be expressed in art jargon. It's not wrong or bad, just a part of the way that different people in different life-experiences or positions, see and react to art.

The collector's trained eyes (in this case with 45 years of training) are adept at picking the subtle marriage of creativity, conceptual ideas, technical skill and presentation. It is anchored on a longer lasting reality than the ethereal reality of the revolving museum door.

Both perspectives are needed to stitch together a good visual art tapestry. Both sensibilities make a terrific visual exhibition, and I will agree with the general consensus that I heard buzzed about on Thursday night, that this 29th iteration of the WPA's annual auction is by far one of the best group shows in recent years and easily the strongest WPA auction ever.

But if I was an up and coming young contemporary curator, I'd also use this exhibition to learn a little from a set of eyes with 45 years of collecting experience and see what I could "pick up from her picks."

Anyone can pick a pickle, but only an Englishman can Piccadilly.

Check out the selected artwork here and go bid for some of it.

Thank you Mera, and if you're reading this post, this is how we "misfit toys" now feel about our area's art scene because of your new presence: