Students learn the art of curation with "profiles of the [dis]connected"

by Eric Twardzik / Beacon Staff • December 22, 2011

There is an art gallery tucked inside the Tufte Building. It is inconspicuous, hidden behind a white door at the end of a long hallway that students walk up and down each day, most oblivious to the art just a doorknob away. Pass through that door and you will discover “profiles of the [dis]connected”: a dazzling collection of contemporary art featuring sculpture, paintings, video and installation—all on exhibit for the first time—curated by Emerson students.

The art occupying two skinny white floors of the Huret and Spector Gallery is the final product of 400-level visual and media arts class, “What is Contemporary Art?”, taught by Joe Ketner. Ketner, who occupies the Foster Chair in Contemporary Art, sought to provide his 18 students with an answer to the provocative question by leading them through the curating process.

The first half of Ketner’s class was spent studying modern art from the 1930s to the present. Following this the class explored contemporary art, not by reading from textbooks, but visiting the studios of Boston art schools where graduate students were in the process of creating new art.

“They were drawn to this,” says Katherine Romero, as she gestures towards her Self Portrait #2 in the Huret and Spector Gallery on Dec. 9th, the opening night of the exhibit. The 25-year-old graduate student at the School of theMuseum for The Fine Arts (SMFA) met with the class when they visited SMFA searching for art. There was a long list to meet with the Emerson class, but Romero’s work caught the eye of the visiting students and made her one of 13 graduate students featured at the gallery.

Romero’s self-portrait is visually arresting: it stands at the end of the hallway, in two pieces. The first is a large sheet of rice paper, hanging from the ceiling with holes cut in it.The rice paper serves as a veil to the portrait behind it, a huge photograph of the back of Romero’s head, taken after a portion of her hair was shaved to operate on a brain tumor.

“These cuts direct the viewer at a certain angle so they had to position themselves to see the photograph and understand it,” Romero says, “that way I had a kind of control in how they saw my situation.”

24 year old Matt Kushan from Massachusetts College of Art and Design represented the moving picture with his video installations Dual and Stare, projected in boxes of light against the white studio wall.

“There’s millions of stories to be told out there. I just think it’s fascinating how much material there is out there to work with.” Kushan said of his videos, which he created while using the social video website chatroueltte.com. On chatroulette.com, which sets up video chats between random users,  Kushan encountered users and persuaded them to tell their stories and share their enviroments for Dual.

“I’m directing them but they’re also helping me take a portrait of them.” Kushan said.

Stare arranges 12 chatroulette.com users into four columns as each stares out of their box and into the viewer’s eyes. Eventually the collective gaze is broken, in what Ketner called “a really eerie moment.”

The Emersonstudents visited artists at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston University and the SMFA to collect art. It was up to the class to choose the final selection, and it was not an easy decision.

“We basically had to take this obscene number and narrow it down,” says Esra Errol, a junior visual and media arts major.
The process prompted debate among the students, who had to separate their personal tastes from what would fit into the exhibit as a whole.
“When people argued it was not just that they liked the art, they liked the artist and how it fit into the whole,” says Ariel Goldberg, a senior writing, literature, and publishing major.

After the artists and artwork were selected, the students broke up into different groups to produce the exhibit. A film and video team took photographs and filmed a documentary to record the experience. A design team created posters and promotional material. Writers wrote a curatorial statement and a press release. The registration team handled the acquisition of the art and managed the information on the art and artists. Finally, an installation team designed the layout of the exhibit and put the pieces into place.

In the end the class decided on the theme  “profiles of the [dis]connected.” Explained by their writing team in their curatorial statement: “The pieces in this exhibition are products of a generation disconnected kinship. In our pursuit of a collective artistic discovery, we found something approaching an expression and ourselves.”

Ketner himself stood in the background at the opening night. With glasses, a striped tie, and over six feet of navy pinstripe suit he looks every part the museum curator. But he asserted that his students are the true curators, as he speaks about the purpose of his class and the exhibit. “To have the students try to come to grips with what was the visual art expression of their generation. Try to begin to articulate what makes you as a 20-year-old you as opposed to me from the 60s. What is different about you, and how does it manifests itself in the visual art work of your peers?”

Students interested in seeing the latest expressions in Boston art can see the “profiles of the [dis]connected” exhibit at the Huret & Spector Gallery at the sixth floor of the Tufte Performance and Production Center at Emerson College. The gallery is open from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. The exhibit runs from Dec. 9 to 17 and from Jan. 18 to Feb. 17.