Grand Curator

In a 2003 Chicago Tribune article, art critic Alan G. Artner characterized the 1990’s as a time during which “pseudo-intellectualism” began “replacing scholarship” in the area of curation.     


Further blurring the lines between curator in “position of service,” as elucidated by Artner, are sometimes artist-curators like Robert Gober, asked to curate in a guest capacity at Houston’s Menil Collection.  Gober’s work within “Meat Wagon” not only drew visitors to the Menil, it offered a glimpse into Gober’s own unique and intriguing way of seeing.  It is this particular viewpoint, this “way of seeing” that started taking second-stage to the selfless and academic approach to curation.


Because of this intensified relationship between art and curation, sometimes the distinction between curating a solid show and “celebrity curating” gets dicey.  Particularly within collectives like TEN Gallery, Good Children and The Front where artist members are presumably expected to share the duties of curating shows, keeping one’s academic ethics intact seems paramount. 


As an art critic working with local museums, this reviewer is frequently cautioned by the curatorial staff themselves against emphasizing their roles in the making and display of art.  The dedicated and educated of the New Orleans art world generally eschew garnering such acclaim in lieu of maintaining academic ethics and (presumably) mutual professional esteem.


As an exercise in learning about the curatorial process, NOLA Defender sought out two academics involved in curating on behalf of UNO St. Claude Gallery.  Instructor and Managing Director Kathy Rodriguez curates UNO St. Claude throughout the year, finding congruous pairings amongst the MFA candidates’ final theses as a mainstay and pulling in other faculty work and work by alumni as well.  When a candidate fell through, Natalie McLaurin’s “You are a weird bird” stood alone.  Enter Assistant Professor of Art History Dr. Rebecca Reynolds who proposed offering MFA grads an opportunity to submit work which would eventually make up the gallery’s April-May show.


Rebecca Reynolds explains that when a letter was sent to MFA alum’, no subject matter was imagined.  However, as artists responded, Reynolds saw an overwhelming amount of work coming in that dealt with the process of identity formation.  This theme coincided well with McLaurin’s work in its own investigations.  Reynolds chose works by Alex Podesta, Nina Schwanse and Monica Zeringue on their works’ thematic and visual strengths.


Alumni Alex Podesta’s work can’t help but greet the viewer, its sculptural and tactile prowess measuring up at the most, around six feet tall.  His work “The Victors” consists of a quasi-pre-adolescent Podesta of adult height dressed in childlike clothing.  Podesta-the-sculpture pulls a legless yet confined unicorn in a red wagon, and leads a paraplegic bunny in a unicycle contraption of his own creation.  Scale is skewed, sort of.  None of the creatures “exist”, giant child Podesta and giant fluffy rabbit staking little more claim to reality than quadruple amputee plush unicorn.  In terms of identity, Podesta’s childlike sense of wonder seems to have been grimly transformed by the journey into adulthood.


Also of note is Podesta’s “I vs. I (Tanner Stage II),” a pair of toddler-sized tricycles covered in the same pristine white fur as the bunny and the unicorn of “Victors” and locked in combat at handlebars modified into antlers.  Tanner Stage 2 refers to the first step towards puberty, and quite possibly the onset of battle within to form the autonomous adult personality.


Monica Zeringue’s entire body of work within the show, five astoundingly intricate works in graphite pencil, four on primed linen and one on paper, boldly and successfully broaches the subject of female identity.  Zeringue’s approach is beautifully communicated and readily relatable from a female standpoint.  The artist takes on characters from Greek mythology like Rhea Silvia, Ophelia and Hercules as a means of transcending the gender constraints inherent in myth. 


Zeringue fearlessly depicts her own body distorted into the nursing canine in terms of nursing capability only.  “She Wolf” offers the sacrificial hare as she ambulates on all fours, possessing three extra sets of breasts swollen with milk.  Charged with the tasks of hunting, feeding her young, the work’s subject bears tender flesh instead of thick fur, short human forearms and oversized human breasts.  Regardless of her inadequacies, our heroine surmounts inconceivable challenges.  This is interesting in itself, until the viewer realizes further that Zeringue also presents her nakedness, her vulnerabilities in the appraising public eye.  The feminist commentary is somewhat absent.   Zeringue instead chooses to discreetly and artfully frame the challenges with an expert hand. 


Zeringue’s “Unbecoming ” discusses the tedious physical and emotional pain of conforming to current standards of beauty.  The fearful prospect of the haircut is depicted, performed by the artist’s mother with pruning shears.  The specter of a well-pruned and fecund rose bush looms in the background, the entire work floating on a blank backdrop.  Zeringue addresses themes throughout the show dealing with the beholden nature of femininity, especially in relation to hair, an important link to Podesta’s work in “Tanner II” which is distinctively masculine in nature.


Nina Schwanse, is an artist seemingly driven to deconstruct the sensational.  Her work often consists of getting inside of a controversial thing at its roots and experiencing the painful process of growing with it.  In her multi-faceted confrontation of feminist anti-hero Veronica Compton, Schwanse reportedly experienced a disjunction when she attempted to portray the woman in a video work.  Compton, a wanna-be screenwriter and attempted murderer who conspired with Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi through letter-writing on the outs’, is the subject of multiple works by Schwanse originally shown as her “Hold It Against Me: The Veronica Compton Archive” exhibition at Good Children Gallery in 2013.


A well-curated show then, conceivably takes into account a body of work evaluated on its rigorous approach to a topic.  It explores many aspects, from both a male and female perspective and generally insists on performing a ghostly task.  It culls as much talent from as far and wide as possible, in this case finding graduates from as far back as possible.

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