Defining contemporary art, or not: Student curators bring disparate artists to campus gallery

by Andrew Doerfler / Beacon Staff • January 23, 2014

1390454600 dressatartgallery thomasmendoza.jpg
A dress made of toilet paper by Helina Metaferia from School of the Museum of the Fine Arts.
A dress made of toilet paper by Helina Metaferia from School of the Museum of the Fine Arts.

Visual art installations on Emerson’s campus often have to wedge themselves into space built for other purposes: Take the LEDs that illuminate the Paramount Center windows, or the 300-foot mural that binds the Little Building’s scaffolding. But on the sixth floor of the Tufte Performance and Production Center, the Huret & Spector Gallery offers an exception, a place for the kind of work sidelined by the likes of film and theater.

The two-floor space, not hidden but not exactly conspicuous, currently hosts Oppositional Realities, an exhibit curated by students who took Joseph Ketner’s contemporary art class last semester. The 14 amateur curators gathered pieces by splitting into groups and visiting the studios of graduate students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Boston University’s College of Fine Arts.

They have compiled a sampling of disparate disciplines: One wall offers impressionistic, boldly-stroked paintings; across the room, you’ll find a dress made of printed toilet paper. Taken as a whole, the show probes the question posed by the course’s title: “What is Contemporary Art?”

“We were discovering through the process that it’s silly to define contemporary art,” Alexander Hayes, a senior visual and media arts major who took the class, says at the show’s opening last Thursday. “Why define the undefinable?”

To highlight that problem, the classmates picked works with a shared history complicated by individual stories that don’t always align. Hayes pointed out two adjacent photography installments on the second floor: The first, by Sarah Pollman of SMFA, captures suburbia at night, with empty mini-golf courses and gas stations fluorescently illuminated. Right next to this series, a gnarled forest is backlit by pale orange light pollution in a photo by Danny Schissler of MassArt.

Ketner, the course’s instructor, has savored the chance to expand the profile of contemporary visual art at a school that hasn’t historically emphasized it. Before coming to Emerson in 2008 as the Foster chair of contemporary art and distinguished curator-in-residence at Emerson, Ketner headed larger programs at the Washington University Gallery of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

“My life was selling tickets,” he says. “My real pleasure is working with artists.”

He was behind the efforts to bring art to the facades of the Little Building and the Paramount. Between his students’ shows, Ketner fills the gallery with bold contemporary exhibits. Before Oppositional Realities opened, in a co-production with the Cyberarts Gallery in Jamaica Plain, United Kingdom-based sculptor Bálint Bolygó’s machines drew light on the Huret & Spector’s walls.

For now, the students who take Ketner’s class are mostly rookies when it comes to contemporary art. 

Celina Colby, a junior writing, literature, and publishing major and one of the curators, says she thinks there is an interest in visual art on campus. But the gallery, which was funded by a gift from a grad school alumna in 1999, remains a bit under the radar.

“Most people didn’t know about it,” Colby says, referring to those she invited to the opening, “and to be honest, I didn’t either.”

Regardless, Ketner steps back to allow his pupils the same freedom he savors. For the newbie curators, that often meant going with their gut reactions. According to Anne Sollish, the whole group was immediately drawn to BU grad student Parastoo Ahovan’s The History Book, a large book of blank pages protruded by spires of varying sizes. Sollish, who graduated from the VMA program last year with a minor in art history, says that unlike the more opaque pieces in the collection, Ahovan’s work quickly makes its point clear.

“It was an instant connection,” she says while turning the tome’s pages and revealing the spikes, which appear to grow as they are uncovered. “There are 1000 pages, and every page is an event, a new crack — it’s about violence.”

On opening night, Ahovan also offered a special performance: Dressed in black, she meandered around the space while a video of a fetus rolled on a tablet strapped to her stomach. She says that when she debuted the piece on the street, people approached her asking if she was actually pregnant.

Not all decisions came so easily. With his series The New Town, MassArt student Andrew Hammerand split the class between those unsettled and intrigued and those simply unsettled by his art. He captured still frames from a publicly-accessible, controllable webcam perched atop a chapel in a Missouri town. The pictures zoom in on people going about their lives, producing distorted images reminiscent of security camera footage.

“He knows this girl, he knows her boyfriend,” says Hayes as he points to a blurry image of a woman peering out a door.

For some, says Hayes, the thought was roughly, “That’s not art, that’s just really fucking creepy.” For the pro-New Townites, though, “there was something greater than whether or not it’s creepy.” 

Hammerand’s work, of course, ended up in the exhibit — eventually, some dissenters ended up appreciating it.

“When I first saw it, I was against it,” says Sollish. “But after sitting down and thinking about it, it just made so much sense. It describes the type of surveillance-heavy tech in our age.”

So is it panoptic commentary or voyeuristic invasion? Such disagreements are welcome. With his class, Ketner isn’t looking for the students to agree on “what is contemporary art.”

“There is no answer to the question. I’m making a rubric for thinking more clearly about the world around them. That’s my charge,” he says. “People have said they leave the class seeing the world differently.”

Correction: The print edition of the article misidentified a man in a photo featuring the work of Adam Matak. The man was Brooke Knight, interim chair of the visual and media arts department, not Joseph Ketner.