“Artists look at other artists,” writes Tom Burr, the sculptor and critic – now turned curator. The just-opened group show at his own representing gallery – Bortolami Gallery – entitled “now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern” (through October 27) – marks his first foray into a role that, by many accounts, is an extension of his own artistic focus. Burr’s statement, paired with snippets of stanzas from Frank O’Hara’s poem Mayakovsky (also the title’s origin), serves as a clue to both the approach and the outcome of a show where sixteen artists share the gallery space. The roster includes historical and contemporary names of note — Kaucyila Brooke, Jean Cocteau, Dan Graham, Ull Hohn, Hilary Lloyd, Sarah Lucas, Gordon Matta-Clark, Lucy McKenzie, Ken Okiishi, Elizabeth Peyton, Josephine Pryde, Mary Simpson, Dash Snow, J. St. Bernard, Charline von Heyl and Emily Wardill — but whose relationships to one another and art in general aren’t equal or even immediately obvious. Connection and perception are the questioned concepts here, and every variable considered — spatial proximity, personal relations, thematic similarities — is filtered through those lenses. This is after all Burr’s solo debut in the director’s chair, all eyes are on him. So then, it seems he’s set-up a rubric for us to draw the parallels between the artists, their works and each other. It all feels very personal. Not surprisingly, the stakes of the show mirror Burr’s own nimble conceptual works invoking biography and memory.
So it also makes sense that Burr called on his longtime intellectual spirit-animal – American poet Frank O’Hara. The two have much in common — arbiters of culture, gay men and New York denizens who deeply rely on the power of observation. Knowing oneself is through the other O’Hara opined, “what does he think of that? I mean, what do I?” reads his poem, and surely Burr is looking at O’Hara here while at himself through O’Hara. The imprints of one’s own biography are impossible to avoid, but especially for Burr’s curatorial premiere – his inclusion of this crop of artists draws a line directly back to him. The easily traceable ones are Ull Hohn, a former mate from the Whitney Museum’s studio program back 1988 and painter Charline Von Heyl, who now paints on the other side of Burr’s own Chelsea studio wall. But then there’s Elizabeth Peyton, whose history with Burr spans back to the classrooms of SVA but whose cagey self-portrait hangs close, perhaps dangerously, next to a series of Dash Snow print-media collages tucked in the corner of the gallery’s opening room. Snow, the conflicted and conflicting East Side royalty-meets-downtown derelict, represents a schism in popular and critical tastes. Interestingly, Peyton has acquired the same status. However, Snow succumbed to a perhaps-orchestrated overdose. Such prescience of his early demise is eerily catalogued in one work, Untitled, 2008, a remediated letter of gratitude from a Lafayette House concierge, the very hotel of his death, that is under the catty-cornered glancing eye of Peyton’s EP, 2012. What is Burr suggesting here — something sinister, cheeky or a recognition of artstar status and/or its perils?
Another standout treatment is of Ken Okiishi, whose first appearance in the show with Marcel Duchamp’s Studio on Streeteasy.com (dust breeding), permutation 5 (at Bortolami, New York) hangs against a green stripe of paint staked strategically. It holds an image, a faintly familiar one, of the contemporary website listing of Duchamp’s actual atelier at 33 West 67th Street doctored with objects from the Dadaist’s era. The photograph also has a twin in the back corner of the gallery’s additional room. While the two whisper to each other through the walls, the works’ use of repurposed ready-mades giggle at the many historical, and meta, echoes found in the others and itself. More highlights include emerging film-maker Emily Wardill, whose ink-jet on silk depictions of crumpled film negatives with titles like Tonight I need a friend, 2012 and Yesterday is dead and gone, 2012 elicit a universal recollection of nostalgia-gone-destructive. (Remember tearing up old photographs of the ex?); and Kaucylia Brooke’s series titled “Kathy Acker’s Clothes” is just that — photographs of the deceased avant-garde writer’s garb appearing aloof, wilted and almost dismembered without the body of its owner.
If Burr’s objective was a puzzle to solve, then guessing the clues and filling them in is only half the fun. This new role continues his signature thoughtful investigation of place, space and personality. But since these are not Burr’s works, therein is the added layer of mystery, and as such, depth. Burr signs off his statement saying, “Maybe all artists are photogenic in the eyes of other artists,” and Burr’s affinity for the artists he’s chosen is clear. Yet so is the reflection they have on his own lens.
Be sure to check out Bortolami Gallery‘s Paddle8 page for available work!
Julie Baumgardner has long been involved in the culture sector. Now she writes and curates. Her work has appeared in such publications as Interview, Surface, Artlog and 1stdibs. Julie has also presented her cultural criticism at Yale, Dartmouth and University of Michigan, just to name a few.