artcore journal

artcore journal

An Experiment in Curatorial Studies: Court Square, LIC by Jaime Schwartz

It is an accepted reality that today more people self-identify as artists than at any time in recent history. But, what of quantity’s dialectical opposite quality? Of these self-designated artists, what percentage is producing work that is new, incisive, or, at the bare minimum, memorable? Though there is no hard data to support this assertion, my guess is that it’s a small margin. Ride the L train out to Bushwick and you will find the tangible evidence of not only this state of affairs, but also of a related one that has not been monitored quite as closely though nonetheless merits pause, or at least a raised eyebrow: More people consider themselves curators than ever before, have deemed their own eye sharp and their ideas important, and have accordingly opened exhibition spaces seemingly as declaration of that fact.[1] And while some of them consistently produce exhibitions that are smart, focused, and current, many of them merely go on spinning their wheels, not really ever propelling themselves out of the proverbial mud.

So, in the face of this unprecedented oversaturation, why even take the risk? Why run screaming into that void?

This is a question I’ve asked myself a lot over the past year. This past spring, I, along with two of my classmates in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies (MODA) program at Columbia University, made the decision that we needed our own space. It was not one we made impetuously, but rather that evolved out of a series of discussions and a mutual vision of what the function of such a project space could be. [2]

Though we like to think of it as a sort of curatorial laboratory, our space, Court Square, was born out of a specific frustration – or frustrations I should say because our reasons for opening the space in spite of our busy grad student schedules are perhaps best considered as two sides of the same coin. First, the lack of availability to us of the physical space to put the theory that we were learning in school into practice; and second, the lack of the critical thought accompanying current exhibitions, particularly in many of the spaces we regarded as our peers.

While graduate programs in curatorial studies are becoming more prevalent, they certainly aren’t requisite for young curators in the same way that an MFA degree has become the equivalent of a driver’s license for young artists in that you can’t even get behind the wheel without one. Moreover, it is a field that, as many will tell you, is as diffuse and undefined as ever. What does it even mean to receive a curatorial education? Visit any institution that offers such a program and they will tell you something different. At Columbia, for example, MODA is housed within the Department of Art History and Archaeology, which already seems like a contradiction in terms as it implies a rootedness in the past. However, there is an abiding logic. While ‘art historian’ and ‘curator’ are by no means interchangeable designations, they are certainly related ones. But, to what extent should one inform the other – both in theory and in practice?

Art historians are trained with a sharp emphasis on historicity and criticality – two tools that are extremely crucial (and often overlooked, I would argue) in curatorial practice as well. Anyone can do a whole bunch of studio visits and call him or herself a curator, but to know what you are seeing and to possess the ability to contextualize it is another skill set entirely. Conversely, it is just as important to avoid becoming the modern instantiation of the armchair art historian; you have to get out there and do all those studio visits, and see shows in both the biggest museums and the hole-in-the-wall galleries that you have to take two trains and a bus to get to. In short, it is equally crucial to have an awareness of where the parameters of aesthetic practice lie today. While this dichotomy is much discussed amongst those in the field, most curatorial programs, practically speaking, are only able to emphasize one philosophy or the other.

Though we often debate its viability, this dialectic essentially represents the approach we’ve embraced at Court Square. The space is both a supplement to and a reflection of our own curatorial education. In our inaugural exhibition, In Visible Ink, which ran from May 8 – June 12, 2011, we sought to develop this tension between historicity and contemporaneity quite literally, and on a scale that was restricted enough that it allowed us the leeway to explore various suppositions while letting others develop organically. It was important to us to say something through this exhibition, and not over-burden ourselves with trying to say everything about our chosen subject.

Installation view: In Visible Ink. Photo by Rocio Rodriguez Salceda. Image courtesy Court Square.

The exhibition took as its jumping off point Hélène Cixous’ seminal 1975 text, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” which outlines the concept of écriture feminine, or ‘feminine writing’, loosely defined as the inscription of the female body and female difference in both language and form. Cixous writes, “It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded – which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.”

With this text, she issues a strong and resounding mandate to women everywhere – that they must write, or else remain trapped within the boundaries of convention. The didactic intent of the exhibition was to bring Cixous’ imperative to bear and to question whether feminine writing is possible now, more than thirty-five years after her initial postulation. Addressing in particular, the abstracted gesture as a means of inscribing presence through artworks that shift from visibility to invisibility, that oscillate in meaning and refuse finite definition, and that transform in appearance, sound and significance based on the ‘angle’ of one’s read. Suspended in the space between objects and ideas, the works enact translations, rendering signs in the construction of highly personal languages.

Installation view: Alyssa Phoebus, Good Woman (2008) and Man Size (2008-09). Photo by Rocio Rodriguez Salceda. Image courtesy Court Square.

As Court Square is a converted domestic space on a primarily residential block in Long Island City, Queens, we felt that these themes would resonate especially strongly there. The exhibition featured the work of three young, female artists: Tracey Goodman, Alyssa Phoebus, and Hanna Sandin. While all three utilized vastly different media, their works shared a common gesture—elegant, but spare in form; colloquial, but rich in meaning.

Feminist discourse often gets a bad rap as being overly militant, too limited in focus, or, worse, inconsequential. Here we wanted to intimate its more introspective side as well as its continued and broad relevance. “White ink,” Cixous’ moniker for feminine writing, suggests that which risks disappearing against the white page.  Likewise, In Visible Ink featured work on the threshold of disappearing into and reappearing from space or the whiteness of wall surface. In many ways, Cixous’ mandate to write, in spite of all obstacles, is at the very heart of our own mandate for the space as we move forward.

Jaime Schwartz is a New York-based art historian and curator. She will complete Columbia University’s masters program in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies in May, 2012.

Court Square is a Long Island City based gallery and project space devoted to supporting the production and exhibition of new work by emerging artists, writers, and curators. Court Square is run by Lisa Williams, Jaime Schwartz, and Ceren Erdem. For further information, please visit

[2] As a point of definition, we do not refer to ourselves as a gallery, which would imply a commercial underpinning, but instead as a project space, which is intended to suggest a more ideological objective.


This entry was posted on June 15, 2012 by in Volume 1, Issue 1: Northeast and tagged , , .
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