Professions go in and out of vogue as quickly as skirt lengths. These days, being a curator is all the rage. Step into Taylor Hall and one will surely find an art history major dreaming of a degree in Curatorial Studies or a fellowship at the Guggenheim. Curation is a necessary function of any artistic space, a tool to contextualize and historicize works of art. The artistically minded practice curation each day, whether constructing a sandwich or choosing between loafers and boots. Everyone can curate; anyone who wishes to should be afforded the opportunity.
Last semester, the Art Department and the Loeb offered an independent study that brought curation within reach for a small group of students. The course was part of the Loeb’s show, What Now? (Or Not Yet), an exhibition that juxtaposed older, renowned pieces with new works, primarily from artists of marginalized identities. Under the leadership of John Murphy, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Loeb, students collaborated on a total “re-curation” of the show, titling it “Body Matters.”
Ezra Venditti ’24, one of six student curators in the class, kindly offered to walk me through the “Body Matters” exhibit. The original show consisted of three rooms– “Past/Breath,” “Present/Bodies” and “Future/Text.” I ask Venditti what they thought of it. “I enjoyed it, but I thought…it was pretty dense, there was one room that was just text, which was like walking into a book,” they explain. “So I think a lot of what we were trying to do when we ‘re-curated’ was to make it more accessible and easy to understand.”
Venditti leads me to the front of the exhibition. Over the dark gray paint of the original show’s walls, student curators added two hot pink stripes bearing the new title, “Body Matters.” The stripes remind me of caution tape, signaling a work in progress. The original title is still visible underneath.
Bold color continues throughout the exhibit. Rich midnight blue and vibrant teal bathe the walls in ocean hues. “We wanted to use a really bright color to draw people in,” Venditti explains. “We wanted to move away from the white-walled gallery.”
Walking into the first room, “Bodies in Motion,” I am struck by Jeffrey Gibson’s painting “Migration,” its brilliant canvas awash with bold geometric fractals in violet hues. Gibson is a queer indigenous artist who explores his identity and heritage through art, particularly the parallels between queer nightlife and powwow culture.
I cannot help but notice the absence of Marsden Hartley’s “Indian Composition,” a hot-button painting originally placed across from “Migration.” What happened?
“We did decide to take it down,” Venditti replies. “If we were in a place where maybe people would read labels more, or if there was some way to stage it … For a moment we were talking about putting some sort of curtain in front of it so that you opt into seeing it, but that seemed like it would be really theatrical and could draw attention to it.”
It would be easy for a curator to assume that visitors will engage with an exhibition as deeply as they do. In reality, guests might not read a long wall text explaining the controversial nature of a painting like “Indian Composition”; many will take its presence at face value.
Venditti pushed for the inclusion of Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms,” square frames filled with text. Each room has its own truism corresponding to its theme. The next room, “Bodies in Memory,” has a forest green truism. One line reads “CHANGE IS THE BASIS OF ALL HISTORY. THE PROOF OF VIGOR.”
Turning around, I gaze at Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ ““Untitled” (L.A.),” a mound of green cellophane-wrapped candy piled on the floor. While Gonzalez-Torres avoids ascribing particular meaning to his work, this installation was born in 1991, when he lost his partner due to an AIDS-related illness. Visitors are invited to touch and taste the candy, interacting with a mass that may represent the body of Gonzalez-Torres’ beloved. As visitors take candy and more is added, a cycle of depletion and replenishment mirrors the cyclical nature of loss and grief.
The dissonant sound of industrial jazz pulls us into the third room, “Bodies in Media,” where three videos from web art group Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries are projected on a loop. Unlike the other rooms, “Bodies in Media” is painted completely white. The curators wanted to depict a loss of control and comfort in this room, focalizing the idea that marginalized people do not control how they are depicted in the media.
Nicholas Galanin’s “Static Broadcast, American Prayer Rug” hangs to the left of the video installation. Galanin is an Tlingit and Unangax̂ multimedia artist. “It is very literally about the way that media depiction of white bodies drowns out other things,” Ezra explains. “The little sections of red are interesting to me: it feels so violent in such a quiet way.”
We turn right and enter the reading room where Venditti leads me to the final “Truism.” Highlighted by a scarlet background, the text reads:
“IT ALL HAS TO BURN, IT’S GOING TO BLAZE. IT IS FILTHY AND CAN’T BE SAVED. A COUPLE OF GOOD THINGS WILL BURN WITH THE REST BUT IT’S O.K., EVERY PIECE IS PART OF THE UGLY WHOLE.”
Venditti hopes that “Body Matters” will radically inspire viewers to rethink what they know. “It’s fine if things change in a way that ends up being destructive for a moment,” they tell me.
The Loeb’s experimental foray into student curation was a successful one. “Body Matters” feels fresh and grounded: something outside of the museum walls has touched it. Unfortunately, the exhibit closed on Sept. 10. I ask Venditti if they were disappointed that the show ran over the summer, a period of low foot traffic at Vassar. They look at Jenny Holzer’s red “Truism,” thinking for a minute, then smile. “For some reason, I don’t really care how many people visit it. I mean, I do care, but for me what I got out of it was more the practice of curating. I’m happy with it.”