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Transcript: Emerging Art with Whitney Biennial Curator Christopher Y. Lew

Guest Christopher Y. Lew with host Charlotte Burns. Photo credit: Colin Miller

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Charlotte Burns: Hello, and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host Charlotte Burns. Joining me today is Christopher Y. Lew, the Nancy and Fred Poses Associate Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Hi Chris.

Christopher Y. Lew: Hi Charlotte. Thanks for having me.

Charlotte Burns: Thank you for being here. One of the subjects that comes up often on our podcasts is this idea of trying to define the great art of the 2000s—people find it quite difficult to do. You’re somebody who’s incredibly enthusiastic about emerging arts and the work that’s being made today. I thought it would be great to have some of that enthusiasm on the show.

Christopher Y. Lew: I’ll try and bring some good energy! One of the main things that I’m doing is overseeing the emerging artist series for the Whitney. The museum largely thinks of itself as a museum dedicated to living artists, so one of things that is, I feel, important—and that the institution takes on too—is to engage with future generations of living artists. Not to say that emerging artists are just synonymous with young makers, but it is based on one’s career point. You can be 100 years and still emerging.

I think it’s an exciting thing. because to work with somebody at that point in a career makes a real mark for an artist in terms of what they’re thinking about and what kind of platform could be created.

Charlotte Burns: And how do you approach that?

Christopher Y. Lew: Certainly you want to be able to help an artist do what he or she does best, and to try make the best possible exhibition. In terms of museums, you have a responsibility to the many audiences who come. So, I try not to create something that’s so inscrutable for a viewer, but that doesn’t mean to dumb down what it is that an artist is making.

Different artists ask for different types of feedback. Some people need an editor, other people have very set in their mind what it is that they do. There are other artists who make things in the studio, but then rely on a certain dialogue in order to figure out how to place it in a gallery—

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Christopher Y. Lew: —and how to tell that story. Each artist is different. Often with the shows at the Whitney, there are a lot of new works being created. And that’s when you get into a really intimate and interesting and intense dialog. For example, with Rachel Rose, the gallery space that she used—and she was the first living artist to use it with the new building—it had a projection booth, but it also had floor to ceiling windows. I challenged her to think about that space, and then she developed something that worked with both.

Charlotte Burns: It was amazing. She’s a young artist who, I think, is really interesting. Can you tell people more about that particular piece?

Christopher Y. Lew: Yes. It was a video called Everything and More (2015), and it began with an interview that she had done with a Nasa astronaut who set a record for being on the International Space Station. And what he was speaking about wasn’t just his experience on the station but his return to Earth—what it felt like to feel gravity again and to take in all the scents and smells that he had, in a way, forgotten about, or to feel the wind against his skin.

It was much more about this return to Earth, and she juxtaposed that audio with images that she made herself using milk, and water, and oils and macro camera. You’re looking at what seems to be cosmic, stellar imagery, but it’s literally a little pool of milk and water that she’s manipulating. That became largely the imagery that you saw, including imagery from an astronaut training facility, too.

Charlotte Burns: It was really moving. I remember him talking about putting his arm out into space and not being able to see anything at all, knowing that he existed because he felt it in his mind, but he couldn’t see himself in the world. Then the world would turn—literally—while he would be outside the spacecraft. It would be this blinding light, and he would see the Earth beneath him, and exist very fully.

You recently co-curated the Whitney Biennial with Mia Locks. And, when I last interviewed you, it was at the start of that process, and you said you wanted to knock on doors, travel around the US, talk to artists, and see what felt important. How did you find that process? Would you do that again in the same way?

Christopher Y. Lew: The process was super exciting, and also really tiring at the same time. For me, I don’t know any other way to do that kind of research, and that’s not even just for the Biennial, but in terms of working with artists and having an understanding of what’s going on in the US in terms of art and culture, you have to be out there, and you have to be meeting with artists, and seeing exhibitions, and taking it in, without any preconceived notions or lists and things.

That goes beyond just meeting with the artist also meeting with curators, writers and others involved with art and culture. That’s the way to get lost in the research.

One of the things, when running around with the Biennial, is that even getting outside of larger hubs such as LA, New York or Chicago, Houston, we’re having the same conversations. When Mia and I were doing our research and travel, it didn’t feel like we were having less of a conversation in one city versus another, there just may be less artists in that city. There was still a very strong and compelling conversation happening.

Charlotte Burns: Did you find that there were themes? When you read the news, it can be very disheartening to think about the fractured state of America. And America’s not alone in that, of course, we have a similar thing happening in England and across Europe.

Did you find real distinctness depending on where you were? Was the conversation different in Manhattan than in Tulsa, Oklahoma than in LA?

Christopher Y. Lew: There were a lot of concerns set in one’s locality, but a lot of those things reached to something that goes beyond the local. One of the things that we tried to explore in the Biennial was a sense of place and the land. Whether one is thinking about artists who are working, say, in San Juan in Puerto Rico—and certainly this was before the hurricanes—but when we were there traveling, that was the beginning of the economic crisis there.

The conditions and the pressure that artists and others are feeling, in a sense its focus is very much about the island, but then was not dissimilar to, say, conversations that we were having in Detroit or even in Bushwick. We wanted to stay close to the particularities of different places, but also to draw connections to show that there are ways to relate.

Charlotte Burns: Can you define some of the things that people were concerned with?

Christopher Y. Lew: Issues of inequality or inequity. Ideas of the land in an almost spiritual or sacred way, too. To revisit notions of place and land. So, for example, Postcommodity‘s video installation A Very Long Line (2016) depicted the US/Mexico border in an almost dizzying way, in that it almost felt like the room was spinning around you. But they are also interested in pointing to the border not just as this division, but as a place where you had so many indigenous tribes living across the border—that the border was drawn across their lands.

Charlotte Burns: There are periods in time in which the world doesn’t seem to move that fast or furiously. I think that the period of time in which you were researching and then installing the Biennial was a period in which history moved very, very quickly. How do you respond to that? Did you feel at points that events might overtake you?

Christopher Y. Lew: Well, it’s the first time that the research portion of the Biennial coincided with a presidential election in over 20 years, and an election that was historic no matter the outcome.

Most of the decisions that we had to make happened well before November. We knew that there was going to be an outcome of the election that would dramatically shift in one direction or the other. We couldn’t predict that; we didn’t know what context the show would land in. That was something that we just had to go along with, to ride that wave. There was no interest in making an exhibition about the election. Certainly there are ideas around society and politics that were informed by the heated moment that we were in.

One of the things that we realized after the election was that a lot of the issues that we were thinking about in terms of equality, humanity, immigration—all of these things were still at the fore and, in a way, were just being amplified further. It felt like what we were already thinking about still continued to feel urgent, if not even more relevant.

Charlotte Burns: Were there places that you were surprised by? Where did you go?

Christopher Y. Lew: We hit something like 40 cities over seven months, so we were on the road every other week, essentially. Mia and I did 90% of the travel together. We felt that it was really important to just be on the ground together, trade ideas in the car, in the Airbnb, on the plane. It really was the product of a collaboration: one show made by the two of us.

Aside from going to a place like San Juan, we spent quite a bit of time in Milwaukee as well. John Riepenhoff, who was in the show, really is an ambassador to Milwaukee in the sense that not just as an artist but also as an art dealer who runs The Green Gallery. He really takes it upon himself to speak about what all these things that are going on in the city. So, it was really amazing to go with him to meet a lot of artists that are there, but also to see what he’s doing both as an artist and a dealer. All these things that almost don’t read as art or have these blurry lines.

For example, he has this beer endowment where he’s created different flavor profiles of different beers working with a microbrewery. The proceeds go back to a local non-profit. And so we were able to serve his beer—

Charlotte Burns: That’s great.

Christopher Y. Lew: —at some of the opening celebrations and different events, and the money goes back to Milwaukee institutions.

In a very different way, we did a studio visit with Larry Bell in Taos in New Mexico, to get a sense of where it is he’s been making all of his work for so many decades.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Christopher Y. Lew: When we arrived, he asked us: “Why are we here?” And we’re like: “No, we’re here just to see you!” To be able to spend time and really get a sense of what it is that he’s thinking about now and how that reflects upon his past work, that really inspired the conversation that led to his big outdoor piece with the Pacific Red (2017) installation of these gorgeous red cubes within cubes that were out on our big terrace.

Charlotte Burns: Were there threads that you couldn’t pull together?

Christopher Y. Lew: I don’t think so. We really started in an additive sense, where each conversation with a different artist grew, and it accumulated into what it was as a show. So, we just built it with a couple of different core ideas and then it kind of grew from there. And then we realized if we added more, we [would just be] reiterating certain ideas.

Charlotte Burns: Did you feel that you had any thesis or argument to make?

Christopher Y. Lew: The broad strokes of what we wanted to explore is this idea of a formation of a self, a sense of identity and also how individuals fit within a larger social fabric, within a community, or how there are systems that prevent that from happening.

Charlotte Burns: Did it change the way you work, producing a group show on such a huge scale?

Christopher Y. Lew: For me, a lot of it is trusting the gut, so in that sense I’m used to—especially at MoMA PS1—putting things together relatively fast. In a way, you’re building the boat while sailing it. A year in a half to make the Biennial is actually a relatively short amount of time in order to do something at that scale.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Christopher Y. Lew: But I think that’s an exciting way to work. Certainly it’s not the only way: you could always use more time in order to think through and digest things. But when you’re trying to create something that responds to the moment, if you wait too long, then you lose the moment.

Charlotte Burns: Right. And what did you think to the receptions to it? When it opened, there was almost unanimous praise. Then that seemed to get overtaken by this backlash around the Dana Schutz work. It seems like that politicization of artworks and this idea of censorship—of who gets to talk on whose behalf—has become if anything even more urgent since that moment. What are your thoughts on that?

Christopher Y. Lew: I think the fact that we’re having that kind of conversation and debate around these issues: around ethnics of representation; around what art can do; and what our expectations for art; and about race; and all these things that are very hard for, especially Americans, to talk about. I think that it’s amazing that it’s happening, and certainly it’s not like we’re going to all come to some agreement so quickly about any of these issues. These issues were very central to the Biennial. So, it wasn’t that it was some argument happening that had nothing to do with the show. We hope that the works throughout the entire show spoke about a lot of these issues in many different ways.

One of the things we never thought to do was to create a show or to have works that would traumatize people, but we felt that these works were part of a very important conversation that we’re having right now.

Charlotte Burns: I think so. It’s interesting, the politics of display. Did that change for you? Would you display things differently now?

Christopher Y. Lew: Well, we spent a lot of time thinking about Open Casket (2016) and where it would be shown within the context of the Biennial. We purposefully did not place all of Dana’s paintings together. If you’re able to see the room in which that painting resided, across the way from it was a sculpture by artist Harold Mendez called American Pictures (2016), and it was a very abstract form that was a metal grating with a metal rod, and then this piece of wood that was kind of spiked onto the rods. It was covered in cochineal, this red insect that’s used as a pigment, and it had a very corporeal bodily form. And then you had these petals that were placed on the grid, onto the floor, that had to be constantly renewed every few days. So, there was this ritual memorializing action that would take place. And for us, it was very much about placing that work across the way from the painting, and having this dialogue literally about American death and violence and memorial.

And then having other works in that room including Maya Stovall‘s performance pieces in which she’s performing in Detroit, outside of these liquor stores to use her body to prompt conversations with people who are living in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood in Detroit, and speak about inequality and race, and their experiences in the city and to fold all of that into this fabric about life and death.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Christopher Y. Lew: Certainly, through the run of the show and hearing from protestors, we actually adjusted the labels for Dana’s painting and included a statement from the artist herself. There were things within the display of the work that we were making some adjustments to.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Would it shape the way you thought about staging works again? Or is it impossible to predict?

Christopher Y. Lew: The work that we do as curators is—when making exhibitions— really thinking about artworks within the gallery: how they speak to one another; what is the relationship between different works; what is that like when you actually walk in and physically experience all of this. We’re all thinking about these things all the time, in terms of what it is works are doing and how they correspond and speak to one another.

Charlotte Burns: Do you think that politics and art are difficult to digest in America still?

Christopher Y. Lew: I think there’s politics to everything that we do, and one of the things that we tried to put forward with the Biennial is to also say that politics and artwork are not just driven by content.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Christopher Y. Lew: You don’t have to be a representational painter in order to take on politics or social issues. For example, somebody like Carrie Moyer who is working with such a range of painterly gestures and vocabulary that point to say macho Ab-Ex painting but also graphic design and then nontraditional materials like glitter and things.

In a sense, she is queering the painterly space. Or how Larry Bell’s work by placing it outside in dialogue with the city, you’re dealing with these Minimalist cubes, but they reflect and inform the city and literally color it. And I think that those kinds of things— you can’t deny that they are also speaking back to the world.

Charlotte Burns: There are these views that the market and museums are completely separate. Which isn’t really true, because there is an ecosystem and there’s a community. But, there is this sense that the market can encroach on museums. Then there is another sense—I remember when I worked in galleries, I was always struck by the amount of money that museums would ask for and then say: “But we can’t thank you publicly”. So, there is this relationship between market and museums that requires navigation. Is that something you think about, or is it just something that you naturally are adept at coping with?

Christopher Y. Lew: You try to navigate it, in a sense. The kind of market forces—I try not to pay attention to that as the first thing and try to stay with what it is artists are making and their reasons why. And hopefully that’s not just to sell it. Although paying the rent is an important thing. But, I feel that it’s really based, the initial conversation, around what it is an artist is doing and what are those intentions? What is the artwork doing itself? What is it saying? What questions are being raised? And, then the forces around it, or the other kind of conversations are there, but try stay with the main things that the work is doing before thinking about all those other contexts, which is the market included.

And I think especially for artists who are coming up—thinking about emerging artists—some of them have a market, some of them don’t. It’s important to be able to reach across no matter what, whether an artist has a collector base or not. It really then comes upon the merits of the work in order to do the show.

Charlotte Burns: Do you have be practical about it in the sense of thinking? Do you have to kind of balance the books and say: “Well, we can put on this show by this artist because it’s going to be easier to fundraise” or there will be more interest from a public—

Christopher Y. Lew: I try to think about the range within the program that goes broader than that even. In terms of where our artist is based, what it is that they are making—we don’t want to show, say, just five video artists in a row.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Christopher Y. Lew: And also to think about accessibility and the mix of group shows, as well as solo presentations, or are there ways to work with artists that even outside of just the physical galleries. And I think when you think about that range, then a lot of those other things take care of themselves. Our trustees don’t vet the program.

Charlotte Burns: Of course.

Christopher Y. Lew: I think one of the useful things is that within the emerging artists thread is one component to the larger program. So, if you think about what‘s on view at a given time, it’s also helpful to think about if we have a larger retrospective with a painter then maybe we’re showing a young video artist, or an emerging sculptor using the building to create some relief from itself—

Charlotte Burns: Right, that makes sense.

Christopher Y. Lew: —that the program shows a range through the different size exhibitions.

Charlotte Burns: And one of the things you must, I’m assuming, come up against often in your exhibitions is this idea of how to show things. Like with video art, I know it has long been a struggle for curators and collectors and galleries to think of ways to show video art to its maximum potential.

It seems that institutions are figuring it out a little more if you look at like Tate‘s Tanks in London. And there is more space being given in the rebuild of MoMA to performance and video installation art. Do you think that institutions are beginning to respond to that?

Christopher Y. Lew: We are trying to respond to the ways that artists work, which I think also is that many artists don’t work in just one medium. And so even thinking about collection displays or exhibitions where you can fold together a lot of different works, so you can hang prints and drawings alongside a painting and also have a video that’s in the exhibition. And I think that becomes more responsive to the ways that artists are working, and also how we are kind of thinking about work. We are not just thinking about the history of photography when we are looking one image, or that a sculptor may also be thinking about cinema when creating work.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, which is a relatively modern way of thinking. Before, you would have the paintings, the prints department, the photography department. Those things seem to be bleeding into each other more now.

Christopher Y. Lew: That expertise is important to have in a medium-specific way. But, at the same time, I think you also want to work in the way that we are all looking at art. And I think that’s with less of a hierarchy, that it’s not just painting and sculpture as the most important thing, or art with a capital A.

Charlotte Burns: And are there conservation issues with working with young artists? Artists are always working ahead of our knowledge and thinking of ways in which to present art or ways in which: to house it; display it; store it; keep it safe; stop it from deteriorating. Things can be very ephemeral—how do you hold them down long enough to stage an event or an exhibition?

Christopher Y. Lew: There are artists working with all sorts of things—or almost nothing at all, too. It kind of runs that range. I feel that our conservation department is really forward-looking in that sense. And, what we’ve been doing with our conversation director Carol Mancusi-Ungaro has actually been opening the doors in a small sense to artists for the conservation lab and inviting people in to meet with her team to talk about materials, to talk about ideas. And not just about the works that are in our collection, but around the material questions and concerns that artists may have for future works, too. And to tap those resources that are in the museum that are not always just obvious or not always on public display in that sense.

Charlotte Burns: That’s super cool. It’s kind of anticipating further demand.

Christopher Y. Lew: In a sense, to have that conversation where artists work with materials and then here are all these people that are also thinking deeply about what materials constitute an artwork. And then you also have, as a different example, somebody like Josh Kline and we have some works of his that are 3D printed sculptures. He’s really thinking about the ways in which the technology will move in the future. So, the files that he has for those 3D scans are higher resolution than the printers can print right now. Part of the work is that if something gets damaged or there’s an element that needs to be replaced, that you print it at the resolution capability of that moment.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Christopher Y. Lew: And so then, the resolution of the sculpture will shift or change based on the technology that is available.

Charlotte Burns: I always think that’s so fascinating: if you’re an artist working in a medium that’s at the cutting edge of technology, you’re writing into your own production your obsoletion, in many cases.

Christopher Y Lew: But at the same time, you know, when we see a Nam June Paik installation, there’s still such a tremendous energy and excitement for it, even though we might be looking at old CRT monitors.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, but that work, it is about technology, but it’s still a formal object. Even if the technology was defunct, you could still look at it and admire it. With a video projection, if you didn’t have the technology to show that anymore, then you couldn’t admire that anymore.

Christopher Y. Lew: Yes, I mean, that’s the challenge when, with the artwork, you have to turn it on.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. So, you mentioned art schools in New York. When people talk about LA, for example, they always talk about the art schools. That’s how we have this generation of artists. And people talk about them as being LA artists, but a lot of them just went to LA because that’s where the conversation was happening, or they just happened to be in the right place.

Did you find, in your travels, that there was anything replicating that moment in terms of the energy emanating from a place? Are artists gravitating to a hub or are things very dispersed?

Christopher Y. Lew: I think it’s still important to have a physical community. As much as we can have communication online and facilitate things, there’s still something about face-to-face encounters, having peers do studio visits and that kind of thing. There’s an artist-run organization in San Juan called Beta-Local, and that really feels like a heart to a lot that’s going on in Puerto Rico. And it was an organization that was started about 10 years ago and one of the directors previously was Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, who was an artist in the Biennial.

And the organization started mainly by looking at what was not present in the art scene on the island. One of those things was a more discursive place, a place to have those deep conversations. So, instead of starting, say an artist-run gallery, they started something that has experimental workshops and different kinds of educational discursive programming and residencies. There’s no MFA program in Puerto Rico. So, they take on some of those things without trying to create that institution.

Charlotte Burns: That’s really interesting. Do you feel that there’s an entire sphere of art-making going on that’s completely ignored by the market?

Christopher Y. Lew: I’m sure that there are more artists that would want to have a greater marketplace or enter into it and be able to have that sustain what it is that they’re doing. I think part of the research for the biennial demonstrated that there are so many artists out there doing things.

One example: Maya Stovall who’s an artist based in Detroit and works between choreography and sociology and art, she’s somebody that we met right then and there and had a last-minute studio visit and the works that she has in the biennial, the video documentation, is the first time that she’s showing in an art context. So, there are still plenty of figures out there, people who are making things that we all need to learn about.

Charlotte Burns: Did you have any strands from the biennial that you’re continuing to pick up on?

Christopher Y. Lew: Somebody like Kevin Beasley—I’ve been watching his work for quite some time, after he graduated Yale and moved to New York. I’ll be working with him for a show next year. So, somebody that I’ve been having this long dialogue with and then not sure where the conversation will end up. We’ve actually doubled back to work that he started in graduate school when he bought this cotton-gin engine that used to run on a farm in Alabama from 1940 to 1973. He had it displayed in his graduate show as a large found object. And now, he wants to bring it back and rebuild it and be able to turn it on and use, not the energy that it’s generating, but the sound. It’s almost like a musical instrument.

Charlotte Burns: When is that show?

Christopher Y. Lew: It’ll be next fall.

Charlotte Burns: Do you have a mission, as a curator? Or things that guide you? That you’d like to achieve?

Christopher Y. Lew: One of the reasons I started working with emerging artists when I was coming up in my career is [because] I wanted to work with people at a similar career point in hopes to have that long term dialogue over time that you can do an early show together, and then, one hopes, maybe down the road there is some other project or years later you’re able to do something, but you have this deep understanding of the work and you can grow together.

Charlotte Burns: You’ve always been discursive like that. I remember reading somewhere that your approach to exhibition making came from working with artists like Josh Kline. And you didn’t quite understand how to fit that in to what you knew, and so you looked to them for guidance on what it was, what it meant.

Christopher Y. Lew: Yes, and you often feel like the interesting thing is the work that you almost can’t recognize as art. That feels a bit inscrutable, or it’s almost like a joke, or it feels dumb in a sense or just unknown, and when you see something you don’t know what to do with it, or you don’t know how to connect the dots to other things, then that becomes the thing to spend time with. Artists like Puppies Puppies, when meeting with them during the Biennial and doing research, paying attention to some shows from afar, and just really couldn’t make up my mind about what the work was and what it was doing. And it just felt like: “Well, that’s a studio visit that we should do.”

Charlotte Burns: You see so much art. Are there things that you pick up on as common threads?

Christopher Y. Lew: I think we’re in a moment where we are all paying attention to what’s going on in the headlines. It’s hard to ignore a lot of those issues. And I think artists are definitely thinking in that way. Many artists are thinking about what kind of world is that work being put out into, and how does that artwork respond or deal with that, whether that is in an overtly political or social way or not.

But I also think that there’s a lot of return to a real tactile sense of materials, and that it’s moving away from a slick, corporate aesthetics value, or that kind of Art-Go-Pop.

Charlotte Burns: Why do you think that is?

Christopher Y. Lew: I think artists are often reacting to previous generations. So, the rise of Pop, with a very distant, cool sensibility, was a 180 from the emotionally intense Abstract Expressionism. I think there is a younger generation of artist that are coming up who are reacting to the so-called post-internet artists.

We’re a moment also where, even new technologies like 3D printing, or computer-generated imagery is now less new, or not just novel. It’s folded more and more, or increasingly so, into our day-to-day. And so we’re no longer just celebrating those new technologies—we’re also seeing the dangers of technology, of looking at what social media has done, especially in light of the election. It’s just such a different moment with regard to new technologies

Charlotte Burns: Do you think that there is a single artist or even a group of artists that are defining this moment?

Christopher Y. Lew: There’s such a range to what people are making in work. If you look at the biennial alone, it stretches from everything from representational painting and portraits to virtual reality. I think it’s really hard to encapsulate the moment with any one person, or it’s hard for me to do that.

I think we’re at a really quickly changing moment, politically, socially, culturally. What 2017 is has yet to be fully articulated. I think it’s going to take time for us to look back at where we are right now.

Charlotte Burns: I think that’s something that 2017—what it means—will be debated in generations to come. Well, Chris, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Christopher Y. Lew: Thank you again Charlotte. It’s been a pleasure.

Charlotte Burns: Oh, it’s so nice to have you on the show. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

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