Photography (and art in general) thesis exhibitions are tricky. They can risk being overly straightforward, catalogue-y, or stale annual surveys. And when positioned to present the "next big thing" in the art world, they may set themselves up to for failure. But aligning with an innovative curator has the potential to position the work in a greater or unfamiliar context. The Camera Club of New York/ Baxter Street has recently taken an unconventional approach to the thesis show, enlisting outside curators to reimagine the work of their MFA graduates. Opening this Wed, June 28, curator Efrem Zelony-Mindell tackles the ICP Bard MFA class of 2017 with Familiar Strange, an ethereal meditation on their work. We spoke with Zelony-Mindell to learn more about his impressions and process.
Interview by Jon Feinstein
Baxter Street/ The Camera Club of New York is an intimate space to see work. I imagine it takes a creative curator to translate the work of a graduating class into the space beyond a simple survey of the work. I was impressed with how Raymond Meeks tackled this with the Hartford MFA show earlier this month. What were some of your biggest challenges? Did you come to any realizations about the work when mapping it out?
Meeks' curation of the Hartford show blew my mind! I've never thought about the space at Baxter Street in such a populated and communal way. It was thrilling and full! That space is intimate and I think it became incredibly intricate with lots of different little parts. For Familiar Strange, I, and the artists wanted to take a much different approach with the space. This show is definitely less about being an MFA show and more interested in exploring the space in a removed, reflective, and thoughtful way. There's a linear conversation built, but there are also relationships that form from opposite ends. The works whisper and sing to their neighbors but also shout to others from across the room. There's a much more minimal amount of works in Familiar Strange than there was in Hartford's ARENA, but this show activates the space from all different directions rather than forming elaborate clusters.
What's the story behind the title?
When I first met with the artists from the ICP-Bard MFA program, we spoke quite a bit. Something they expressed was that they didn't think they had much in common—at least in regards to their works. Their works are dynamic and their interactions broad. I found that interesting as they're an incredibly passionate group of people. I'm personally pretty driven when I hear individuals or groups of people say that they don't have anything in common. I see that as a totally missed opportunity and took it as a challenge. Parts come together and people have common grounds, they're visual, they're social, they're political, they have intimacies. Familiar Strange is a phrase that I noticed in one of the artists statements when reading over all of their books. Something really clicked in my mind and I felt it really optimized these thoughts that I was having about people being more related than they may seem.
I'm drawn to the words "Groups and objects coerce together to form conversations; they are not without each other..." in your statement about the show. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
I love 99-cent stores! The repetition, the unconscious patterns, the wonderful plastic junk, frames and plates and crayons. What on earth is all this stuff doing together? I don't know, but thankfully someone was smart enough to put all these incredibly necessary things together in one place. I think the world is hungry for establishing communities and places like that. It's a risky business having such odds and ends together in one place but the necessity for that can feed the needs of absolutely everyone. Art is like that. And its patronage is of course from the people who make it, but it is also from the viewers who consume it, see it, and interact with it.
There's little to no portraiture in this exhibition. Any hunches on what that's about?
Another great question. One that I'm not sure is specifically indicative of the artists in Familiar Strange but maybe is part of broader dialogue that deals with the future of photography. I can't think of a single person's face in any of the works that I looked at when curating this show. There were lots of works with people and bodies, and I'm sure there may have been one or two faces, but not sure I remember ever seeing a straight-on face or eye contact with the lens. It just doesn't stand out in my mind. I really believe that the answer to this question is actually the beginning of a much longer conversation with many elements to it. For me not having any portraiture in Familiar Strange is a call to viewers to form their own conclusions about individuality and identity. I think this way of thinking allows the works to become incredibly personally intimate to whomever is looking, they get to put themselves in the work, and the works become theirs.
From what you're seeing, is there anything that makes ICP Bard work different from other MFA photography programs?
I've been thinking about this quite a lot lately. I've made a point of trying to see as many BFA & MFA shows as I possibly can this year. Columbia, Yale, Hartford, SVA, Hunter, Parsons, Pratt. I'm not totally convinced that it's the works that set programs apart. There's amazing work wherever you go. To me I think it's more about mindset, thinking, and pathology. Working with these artists I recognize that they're thinking differently and talking differently about themselves, each other, and the work they make.
To this point. many MFA programs, Yale in particular have developed reputations for a specific aesthetic. Did you notice any trends among the graduating students, or anything particularly "Bard-ICP" about the work?
I'm happy to say that ICP-Bard leaves a pretty diverse impression in terms of a school aesthetic. What does seem to stand out most to me is that more than other MFA students I talk to and work with ICP-Bard seems to drive it's students to work together on projects and to form conversations. Yes, each artist works on their works individually but I think they're pushed to be incredibly aware of one another. I'm not sure that there is a visual aesthetic to ICP-Bard, but talking to them I notice they talk about each other much more than they talk about themselves. That's definitely different than what I'm used to hearing from an MFA program.
BIO: Efrem Zelony-Mindell: is a curator, writer, and visual artist. He writes and contributes about art and photography for VICE, MOSSLESS, L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Huffington Post & aCurator, and teaches and lectures in New York City. He has previously worked as managing editor and curator on numerous fine art projects and received his BFA in photography and art history with a minor in painting from the School of Visual Arts. He was born in Miami and currently works and lives in New York.