Interview with MOPA curator Chantel Paul

- - Art

Jonathan Blaustein: Thanks so much for agreeing to chat. I was hoping you might be able to give our audience the inside scoop on how an exhibition takes shape, from idea to execution.

MOPA just had the big opening for its second triennial, on which you were the lead curator, called “Staking Claim.

American Lake, WA G3, 2011 Matthew Brandt Chromogenic print soaked in American Lake water ©Matthew Brandt, Courtesy of Gilad and Rachel Segal

Around the Bend, 2012 Susan Burnstine Archival pigment print Courtesy of the artist.

Dusk #57, 2010 Mark Ruwedel Gelatin silver print Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Luisotti

Luminaria: Midday Winter Solstice Barrow, AK. Electric, 2012 Christina Seely Archival pigment print Courtesy of the artist

#82.948842 Detroit, MI. 2009, 2011 Doug Rickard Archival pigment print Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery

Untitled #9238-e, 2011 Todd Hido Chromogenic print Courtesy of the artist and ROSEGALLERY

JB: Staking Claim is a California invitational, so you’re only showing work from artists who work in or are based in California?

Chantel Paul: Right. It’s artists who live in or are based in California. The work does not have to be created about the State or in the State.

JB: How did you go about choosing artists in a State filled with, what, 40 million people? Have you hit that number yet? It’s got to be close by now.

CP: I reached out to galleries and institutions I know who have a continued or sole focus on contemporary photography. As far reaching as Jackson Fine Art and Yossi Milo, to the Portland and Seattle Art Museums, and the Getty Center. Also, the galleries at 49 Geary Street in San Francisco, and all the main galleries you’d think of in California for contemporary photography.

I also talked with folks like the Museum of Latin American Art. I was trying to broaden the reach, so that we could get names that we hadn’t heard of. I also spoke to certain individuals and independent dealers who know what’s going on out there.

JB: But you didn’t ask me.

CP: I didn’t.

JB: No. But you probably should have, in retrospect. Right?

CP: I could have. Yes. I also started the process in April of 2012. That’s when I started concepting the list of nominators, and asked people to return it by July of that year.

JB: That was very suave. I love how I said you “should have,” and you replied with “could have.” That was really smooth.

CP: (laughing.)

JB: It was practiced. Even now, people can’t see the look on your face, but its saying “Come on, now. Move along. Give me a real question, not a fake question.”

CP: It’s a triennial. You’ll have another chance.

JB: Of course I’m just joking. But I wonder, if you’re dealing with galleries, isn’t there a real element of self-interest? Did most galleries nominate artists whom they represent?

CP: Some of them did, and some did not. There were very specific instructions. They could nominate three people, and the work was meant to be made in the last five years. I also suggested that they do not need to represent the artist, in the accompanying letter.

JB: This is the second triennial, so I have a two part question. How did you end up choosing a triennial schedule, instead of a biennial, which of course everyone else is doing? (Maybe that’s the answer right there.) And how did you come to be in charge of this one?

CP: We really wanted to make it different from the 2010 exhibition. With the invitational process, we were hoping to not duplicate the first one, with a lot of the same names. We wanted to give the medium a chance to shift and change, to give some new names a chance to come to the forefront.

The extra year helps allow for that to happen organically. This time, there were names I’d never heard of, and photographers who are just now becoming very prominent in the art world that were just starting to bud at the time they were nominated. So it proved to be successful in that way.

With respect to the second part of your question, in 2011 I solo-curated my first show for MOPA. As this exhibition was coming onto the calendar, I asked to be the project lead. I thought it would be a great way to grow, and to see what the medium is like right now.

JB: You choose the nominators, they nominate people, and then you end up with a list of one hundred photographers? Or more?

CP: There were actually eighty-seven nominations total. I reached out to fifty-four nominators. Not everyone nominated three people, and there were duplicate and triplicate nominations for particular photographers.

JB: Of course. And that was a pretty good guess. Eight-seven is not that far away from a hundred.

CP: No, it’s not. I was expecting there to be more, but there were a lot of duplicate nominations. Which was interesting.

JB: Probably the names we would expect. I’ve got to imagine Todd Hido was nominated by a heap of people. Not that “heap” is a specific numerical term.

CP: I think he had two nominations. There was one particular individual who had three, which was the most.

JB: Fair enough. I’ll jump ahead in logic and assume you then did studio visits? You got in there, rolled up your sleeves and started looking at work?

CP: When the nominations were coming in, I started compiling a whole visual spreadsheet. So by the time I got all the nominations in by early August, I’d divvied them up into the yes, no and maybe piles.

I made the initial selections and shared them with our Director, Deborah Klochko, and our Director of Exhibitions and Design, Scott B. Davis. Just to make sure I was on the right track. When you’re very close to a project, you sometimes want to get that outside perspective, to make sure you’re seeing everything right.

JB: Sure. No matter what you do. And I have to say, the fact that we’re talking about spreadsheets should dispel any illusions that people have about the glamorous nature of the curatorial career.

People visualize you as hopping onto planes to Istanbul and such. But really you’re working with Microsoft Excel. So I’m glad that came to the forefront.

CP: Well, the travel and studio and gallery visits are definitely the ‘pinch me’ part of the job. But, it was a great way to see everything in one place. I’m really a visual person, so I literally cut out images, lined them up and put them together. I started to see it take shape, where I could see relationships between certain artists or bodies of work. And then I did narrow the 87 down to about 30 photographers, followed by phone calls and studio visits with those individuals.

Then I slowly whittled it down to the final list of 16.

JB: So there are occasions now where you go to openings, and you have to see people who didn’t make the cut, and you have to do that awkward conversation thing?

CP: Well, (long pause,) it’s not that their work wasn’t good, it’s that it didn’t fit with this particular exhibition. So the photographers that didn’t make the show, but I really enjoyed their work, I absolutely want to stay in touch with. Maybe it wasn’t right for this opportunity, but it could be right for something in the future.

JB: I’m coming up with tongue in cheek questions, and you’re answering in a really classy way. Forgive me. We’ve got to keep it real here at A Photo Editor.

CP: It was very interesting with some photographers. In a couple of cases, once they knew they weren’t in the show? That was it. No response to the email.

JB: There we go. Thank you for sharing a little bit of the reality, and not just the classy answer.

But I’ll be serious for a minute. In America, a lot of ideas seem to drift east from California. You took the pulse through art, so what do you see that’s going on right now?

CP: Photographers are going inward, creating work meant for outward display. The work is coming from a very personal place. It’s a meditation on what they do, but it’s also a very tactile process. I don’t know if it reflects what’s happening on a geo-political scale per se. It’s more what’s happening globally with the perception of the medium.

About ten to twelve years ago, there was this whole question around digital, and how it was going to change the medium. Now, some papers and chemicals are no longer being made. Today, these photographers are able to be creative by doing the wrong things with photography to create new work that people haven’t done before.

JB: A lot of the work appears to be very process oriented, and visual. You job was to cull ideas from the ether, through different artists and different works. The curator makes the statement by the choices that he or she makes.

CP: Right.

JB: With some of the work, like Susan Burnstine and Klea McKenna, there’s a sense that there are processes going on that aren’t visually represented. Susan builds her cameras from scrap parts and plastic lenses. Klea McKenna was making paper airplanes that reference spotters on the Pacific beaches in WWII. Both make beautiful images.

What’s your take on work that doesn’t necessarily make it’s bones evident to a viewer?

CP: I feel like we’re at a crux. Artists are very much interested in the object of a photograph as much as the image they’re creating. Like Klea’s installation, in which the inverted triangle is important to her work. It’s also an opportunity to create conversation. And there’s also text in the exhibition that explains things, of course.

Another great example is Matthew Brandt. If you just walk up to those pictures, you have no idea what just happened.

Or look at Eric Willam Carrol, who takes images from Flickr and then makes physical installations out of them.

JB: That one looked really fantastic in the book. I can’t wait to see it.

From what I could see, he’s punched a hole in each of these photographs. But then you guys installed these tall, striking poles, on which stacks of hole-punched photographs have then been impaled. I guess that’s the proper word here.

CP: Right. And for his site specific installation at MOPA, Eric came out for a weekend and worked with a team of volunteers to create a mosaic and stack of images, which he culled from the public commons of Flickr of images that were geo-tagged San Diego.

JB: That’s what I was seeing. Does he discuss the whole sexual innuendo?

CP: Huh?

JB: It’s a most powerful visual reference, but it hard to see what it has to do with his concept.

CP: That is funny. (pause.) I am actually shocked that I never even went there.

JB: Never.

CP: I’m shocked.

JB: I’ll verify that. We’re skyping now, and her eyes are wider than the Pacific Ocean. Oh my god. You didn’t see that?

CP: (laughing.) No. I actually didn’t.

JB: OK. Well, you’ll have to ask him next time.

CP: For this installation, it’s only one spike though. It doesn’t look like it, but there are over 7000 images in our installation.

JB: Does he have an assistant punch the holes, or does he do it himself?

CP: He does it. He has a mitre.

JB: Just checking. In 10 years, he’ll hire someone to do it for him.

CP: He does them 100 at a time.

JB: Efficient. I like that. We Gen-X’ers and Millennials love our recycling and efficiency.

CP: This time, he saved all the holes.

JB: Well, I’m sure you’re exhausted and proud of your accomplishments. We’ll wrap this up, so you can get on with your day. Don’t have a heart attack, but what’s coming next?

CP: One of the things I’m working on is that we’re bringing the Prix Pictet “Power” exhibition here to San Diego. It’s opening in February. We’ll be the last venue, at the end of the tour. And we’re the sole American location for the show.

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