Hrag Vartanian, Brooklyn-based Armenian-Canadian art critic (born in Syria, raised in Toronto) co-founded Hyperallergic, a popular "blogazine" about emerging art, with his husband Veken Gueyikian in 2009 and currently serves as its editor. Last weekend, Vartanian switched roles from critic to curator for his debut curatorial project, On Display, presented by STOREFRONT gallery in Bushwick.
Vartanian built the show around the paintings of fellow blogosphere mediamonger Sharon Butler, editor of TwoCoatsOfPaint, a popular website about Modern and contemporary painting. William Powhida — Bushwick artist and self-proclaimed private investigator of the art world — smelled the potential conspiracy immediately on Twitter.
@powhida: @stephentruax ambition in a storefront? I’ll see about that. @hragv #artfarty
Powhida, a veteran at exposing complex art world secrets and incestuous relationships (like in his famous drawing published in the Brooklyn Rail exposing the New Museum for exhibiting trustee Dakis Joannou’s private collection as a public exhibition called Skin Fruit in 2009 curated by famous artist Jeff Koons) took note of Vartanian’s curiously close professional relationship with Butler, and questioned his motives.
@powhida: @stephentruax since @hragv is playing Koons, I’ll fill in as Verne Dawson.
Verne Dawson is a painter represented by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Gavin Brown also represents Urs Fischer and Elizabeth Peyton who both had shows at the New Museum. Dawson is married to Laura Hoptman, who is a curator at the New Museum. Dawson is also included in Powhida’s How the New Museum Committed Suicide cover of the Brooklyn Rail. Powhida is connected to Vartanian and Butler in a similarly distant manner; the art world can be very small. (An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Dawson was in the Skin Fruit show at the New Museum. He was in neither the show nor has he been shown in the museum. We regret the error.)
@powhida: @stephentruax I’m also already working on that drawing #blogosphere #incestuousrelationships
Vartanian described his Twitter relationship with Powhida as "antagonistic." Further proving the blogosphere’s important role in the Bushwick gallery circuit, the fourth and final voice of the NYC blog world also made an appearance on opening night: Paddy Johnson. Johnson, editor of ArtFagCity, a popular blog about contemporary art and (inexplicably) TV, assured me that BushwickBK would have exclusive coverage for this groundbreaking media event. Vartanian admitted via Twitter:
@hragv: FULL DISCLOSURE: I DID sleep with everyone I’m exhibiting this Friday. /cc @twocoats @powhida @stephentruax @nortemaar
Vartanian found two quasi-related artists to buttress Butler’s paintings: Cathy Quinlin, still life paintings titled after Giorgio Morandi, recommended by the host gallery; Joy Curtis, architectural sculpture in "painted" plexiglass, whom Vartanian has "had his eye on" for three years since he found her at Bushwick Open Studios 2007, and whom Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery found first and started to represent.
Vartanian also confided in an interview that the work in the show is not thematically related, that the works were chosen based on aesthetic and formal decisions. Concept came second; it was about presenting the work, not about creating a narrative. Hence, "On Display," that they are only objects On Display. "I’m kind of bored of ugly objects," Vartanian said, regarding conceptually driven work.
On Display places Butler somewhere in the middle on a continuum between conservative (Quinlin) and experimental (Curtis). Like a multigenerational family portrait, each artist represents an approximate decade of recent art history — Quinlin: 1950s, almost Roy Lichtenstein in her stylization of still lives; Butler: 1940s, see Arthur Dove abstractions based on still lives; finally, Curtis: 1970s, Anselm Kiefer meets Dan Graham. There is virtually no conversation between Quinlin and Curtis, and without the linchpin of Butler, one is sort of left going: huh?
Just as Vartanian comes to curatorial work through blogging, similarly does Butler arrive at painting through writing about painting. Her most recent series Brightly Colored Separates, 2010, are packed with information about painting. Within them we find quotations of Piet Mondrian, the work of early 1900s abstractionists (like the aforementioned Arthur Dove), and vague references to contemporary painters, namely, Mary Heilmann, and Thomas Nozkowski. Butler’s paintings are indeed formally successful. A decade of painting experience can be seen in the casualness in her brushstroke and the sophistication of her compositions. They are unequivocally Modernist paintings.
Vartanian got involved in the Bushwick art scene because he was interested in "where the artists are." He personally views Bushwick as an experimental space where artists have the opportunity to redefine what they make, and how they live. The question remains: If we are in an experimental neighborhood, making experimental work for experimental shows in experimental gallery spaces, then why exactly are we making and showing Modernist painting?
"Modernism is ok," Vartanian said, and staunchly defended the practice of Modernist painting, citing that there exist multiple interrelated spheres of the art world, not one pinnacle discourse that governs the entirety of what is made today. Major commercial galleries are only a part, and MFA programs are the new academy. Vartanian sees small retail galleries like English Kills, Factory Fresh, and any number of other art spaces as incredible examples of the multiplicity of the art world.
Vartanian has observed the arch of economic income for these small spaces over the last five years after their inevitable emergence; 2004-2006, rise; 2006-2008, peak (sellout shows); 2009-2010, remarkable survival. He laments having been unable to purchase a Judith Supine sculpture out of his solo show Dirt Mansion at English Kills in May 2008, because all of the work had already been sold (wow).
The art world is vast and multiple practices are possible, but Butler’s paintings fall just short of the encyclopedic survey of Modernist and contemporary painting today that I think they could be. Butler could achieve a kind of postmodern meta-painting. She quotes other artists but does so self-consciously instead of outright. The casual installation of the paintings, the accompaniment of sketchbooks and curio on a shelf nearby, and the easel-scale and standard sizing result in a quasi-historical representation of her work; it comes off as a museum show rather than a new offering to the contemporary discourse. Both of these problems were exacerbated by being paired with Quinlin’s abstracted still lives; which emphasize the weakest points in both artists’ work.
It was smart for Vartanian to include Curtis, whose work is closely related to the North Brooklyn experience. What links On Display to the contemporary world is Joy Curtis’ sculpture, because of its direct relationship to the environment in which she works, and where the sculptures were presented, namely Bushwick. There is a self-awareness of her contemporary time and a freshness to her approach in that it is lithe and versatile, see the wide range between this and her last offering at Klaus and these plexiglass structures. In a different context, Curtis and Butler could be paired — perhaps at a larger scale and in a crisp white box — and both would touch on something really fresh.