Monday, February 16, 2015

Curator: April Watson

Priya Kambli

April Watson is Curator of Photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, where she has worked for seven years. She holds a BFA in graphic design from Alfred University, an MA in art history from The University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and a PhD in art history from The University of Kansas, where she completed dissertation on post-WWII photographers of the American social landscape. At the Nelson-Atkins, she has curated and co-curated numerous exhibitions, including Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, which was co-organized with Simon Kelly at the Saint Louis Art Museum; Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans, a career retrospective of the artist; American Soldier; About Face: Contemporary Portraiture; Thinking Photography: Five Decades at the Kansas City Art Institute; Time in the West: Photographs by Mark Klett & Byron Wolfe and Mark Ruwedel; Human/Nature: Recent European Landscape Photography; and Hide & Seek: Picturing Childhood. She is currently at work on an exhibition of photographs featuring American soldiers and military personnel, from the Civil War to the present day. She lives in Kansas City with her husband, photographer Elijah Gowin, and their two daughters.

Watson juried the 14th Annual Joyce Elaine Grant Photography Exhibition at Texas Woman's University, which opened February 11, 2015, and will be on view until March 13, 2015.

Juror Statement

In selecting works for this exhibition, I felt it was important to reflect the immense variety of creative approaches that currently define contemporary photographic practice. By orienting submissions towards a theme, I hoped to encounter works that, no matter how they were made or conceived, challenged everyday perception in unique and surprising ways. To my delight, that is precisely what occurred.

It was impossible to include as many objects as I would have liked. I feel, however, that the final selection reflects an accomplished body of works that enlarges our understanding of what is possible with respect to photographic image-making today. Included in this exhibition are a range of technical processes and conceptual approaches, granting no singular style or methodology precedence over another. Ultimately, and through many painful edits, I determined to bring works together to create a visual dialogue that (it is hoped) resonates throughout the exhibition.

New technologies and rhetorical trends have always shaped the way pictures get made, seen, shown, and discussed. What persists is an abiding curiosity for photography’s capacity to picture and present things differently than one might ordinarily see them. This exhibition celebrates that simple, yet enduring, fascination. These works took me momentarily “Out of this World,” and it is hoped that they will inspire a similar experience for others as well.

Interview conducted by Deedra Baker, Exhibition Co-Coordinator for the Joyce Elaine Grant Exhibition 

Deedra Baker: How did your graphic design and art history educational backgrounds lead you to curatorial interests in photography?

April Watson:
I loved art school: it opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about creative expression, intellectual discourse, and in the most practical of terms, how to actually make things. As a graphic design major, I learned how to organize and prioritize information visually and spatially. I also took several photography classes and learned the technical and conceptual rudiments of the medium, as well as how to best present work. I always loved art history classes-even the ones that met at 8 am on cold, snowy mornings in upstate New York. I spent a semester abroad in my junior year and backpacked around Europe, visiting many of the places and masterpieces that one studies in Art History 101. That determined for me that I wanted to learn more about the history of art.

Additionally, I confirmed as an undergraduate that I was far better at writing about art than actually making it. I recall during one of my end-of-semester critique in Freshman Foundation, a very kind, very honest professor said to me after viewing my less-than-scintillating work (things into which I’d poured my heart and soul): “You know, I can see you as a gallery director or some kind of arts professional.” I think he was graciously hinting that I should think about diversifying my experience!

In hindsight, I realize this foundational experience as an undergraduate was vital as I began to think about photography in more abstract, theoretical terms in graduate school. In many ways, it keeps my curating grounded in a fundamental love of photographs as objects. Not that art school is a necessary precedent for that way of thinking and working as a curator. But for me, it planted a seed.

Linda Alterwitz

DB: Through your diverse curatorial accomplishments, which photographic genres interest you the most? What would be your dream curatorial assignment?

As I often say, the history of photography, relative to other areas of curatorial expertise, is a relatively short history, so it’s good to have a strong fondness for many time periods and genres. Some scholars have devoted years of their academic and museum careers to one general subject or time period. Though I admire that level of expertise, it’s not the way I work. I can’t work that way, really: museums do not attract visitors the way they did 20-30 years ago. We need to offer a broad menu of options and approaches to subject matter: both long-term, scholarly projects and smaller shows whose themes might appeal to visitors who have no knowledge of photography’s history, but who love looking at great photographs.

On a personal level, I’ve always loved French 19th century material-my graduate advisor at the University of New Mexico was Eugenia ‘Nia’ Parry (then Eugenia Parry Janis). She and Andre Jammes produced the first major study of the key practitioners of this time period. She inspired me through her passionate lectures and brilliant insights to think deeply about what photographs meant, bringing literature, philosophy, and art history to bear on interpretation.

I also like post-WWII American “documentary-style” work, particularly photographers working during the 1960s and 1970s. The American social landscape has always fascinated me as a subject.

Honestly, I’m not sure what my dream curatorial assignment would be: I do think that an exhibition focusing on photographic practice in the 1970s in general warrants in-depth scholarly treatment, since this is the period that has shaped the current academic and curatorial landscape. It all exploded in the early seventies: the gallery scene, the market, the proliferation of graduate programs in photography in art schools, the expansion of curatorial departments in museums dedicated strictly to photography, an increase in conceptual artists who regularly used photography in their creative practices. It is an important history to document.

I also believe there is great potential in creating thoughtful exhibitions and installations that mix photography with painting, sculpture, video and installation. The exhibitions that have done this-- either projects that I have worked on or have seen elsewhere—bring a fresh appreciation of the medium by letting photography out of its medium-specific cage, so to speak. Mixing media in exhibitions can enrich our collective understanding of the artistic cross-pollination that took place during particular historical moments.

I also believe that there are certain photographers whose work certainly warrants monographic treatment. As a curator, I serve as a conduit for artists. I see my job, at least in part, is to create exhibition opportunities so that their work may be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

Garrett Hansen

DB: For the 14th Annual Joyce Elaine Grant Photography Exhibition, you set the theme: Out of this World. What influenced you to create this specific theme? How did you consider selecting work to fit within the theme?

Basically, I was interested in finding work that made me want to look at it for more than five seconds, and that took me outside ordinary modes of perception. I wanted to bring together a group of photographs that were visually engaging, and that prompted me to ask the simple question: What exactly am I looking at in this picture? By selecting the theme, “Out of This World,” I thought I might encourage submissions by artists working in a variety of photographic practices: those who use alternative processes, who work with appropriation, or who make so-called straight, documentary-style photographs. Luckily, that strategy was successful. In the end, I included a bit of everything.

As I focused in on the final selection, I also thought about how pictures might relate to one another in the gallery, with the hope that a visual dialogue might evolve.

DB: What do you feel are the technological and rhetorical trends in contemporary photography? How are these trends shaping the way photographs are made, seen, shown, or discussed?

We’re at another one of those exciting moments of paroxysm in the field, when academics, artists and museum curators (those terms are not mutually exclusive by any means) scramble to define the parameters of contemporary practice. They never fully agree, but in general I enjoy the ongoing debates, as I think it’s healthy for the field to keep from becoming too static.

In terms of trends, there are a few I would identify. I see many artists who are fascinated by the materiality of analog and chemical photographic processes, and explore that as a conceptual practice. People like Marco Breuer, who has been working in this manner for some time, but is just now getting widespread recognition, or Allison Rossiter, Chris McCaw, Mathew Brandt and Liz Deschenes. I also see several artists exploring the threshold between still photography and video: Bill Viola, of course has been doing this for some time, but also younger artists like Owen Kydd and Adam Magyar. And there are many artists that explore the way photographic imagery circulates on the internet and through social media.

I’d add, however, that the kind of work I tend to see in galleries, at art fairs, and in major museum exhibitions differs from the wide variety I see submitted to exhibitions such as this, or at portfolio reviews like Fotofest or Photolucida. Sometimes these worlds intersect, but not as often as one might think, given the numbers of photographers emerging from graduate programs. The market for contemporary art, particularly in places like New York City, drives certain trends in an unhealthy manner, in my opinion. There are also gallerists and dealers who genuinely care and are deeply passionate about contemporary photography, and who play an important role in bringing an artist’s work to wider attention. It can be tough to navigate the market, as both an artist and a curator. I always have to ask myself: will we look back at this work 10-20 years from now and wonder what on earth were we thinking when we acquired it for our collection? Sometimes you just can’t easily answer that question.

I believe it is important to support exhibitions like this one, which create a vital opportunity for artists to show their work. I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to curate this year’s show, which brought to my attention works I might never have seen otherwise.

Installation shots by Rachael Banks 

No comments:

Post a Comment