By Kelly Inouye
Part of The Drawing Center’s commitment to emerging and under-recognized artists is realized through the Viewing Program, a curated registry of artists available online and regularly consulted by gallerists, curators, and collectors. Members of the Viewing Program also have the opportunity to meet with the program’s curator, artist Nina Katchadourian, to review their work. Recently, I spoke with Nina about her role as Viewing Program curator, her work as an artist, and her connection to the San Francisco Bay Area.
I’d like to start by asking about your history before you started working with The Drawing Center. What did you do before becoming curator of the Viewing Program?
I moved to New York in 1996 to be part of the Whitney Independent Study Program. After that, although I had every intention of going back to California, where I am from, I ended up staying in New York to pursue a few opportunities that had come up. My first part-time day job here was working at a design firm called Chermayeff and Geismar. I worked as an exhibit designer and in some ways did more research than design. I ended up writing a lot of content for the exhibits the firm designed.
A very wide assortment of topics came my way. I worked on a show about Freud and another about the Federal Reserve Bank, among other things. I did that for about three years. In 2001 I started teaching at Brown University in the Art Department. I taught there while commuting back and forth from New York to Providence for three years. That led to a teaching gig at RISD in the Sculpture program and for a while I was actually teaching in both programs.
Life in two cities was exhausting and I felt that it was taking a lot of time away from my studio work. I had been thinking about making a change when I ran into someone I knew who worked at The Drawing Center as a curator. She mentioned that my name had come up in conversation and wanted to know if I’d be interested in a job there. My response was, “Definitely.” At that point they were searching for a new Viewing Program curator, so I was very lucky in terms of timing. I interviewed for the job and started work there in 2006. I’ve been doing this for six years now. It’s a part-time job for me, twenty hours per week and it’s a very happy arrangement.
As the Viewing Program curator, what does your role involve?
I am one in a long line of Viewing Program curators. The program was founded in 1977, the same year The Drawing Center was founded. It’s always been part of The Drawing Center’s mission to have this program for emerging artists. Part of the philosophy from the beginning was to have an artist, a practitioner, in this role, so that it would be a conversation between two people who are making things and know about that odd and curious task. My role has been, as it has been for all the Viewing Program curators before me, to spend time meeting with artists to review their work, to look at submissions to the program, and I also curate a show every year or two which features the work of Viewing Program artists.
Can you talk about what you look for when reviewing work for the Viewing Program?
That’s a good question, and it’s something that took a little time to figure out. Initially it was quite overwhelming to be faced with upwards of a thousand submissions a year and figure out how to make those decisions.
There is a registry already in existence that I inherited, of course, and it reflects the taste and interests of many past Viewing Program curators. In that sense, there’s quite a diversity of work there. It’s not work that necessarily reflects what I’m interested in right now. It’s a registry that wants to be fairly generous in the sense that artists are sometimes, you know, in the process of finding their work. I can think of instances where I have accepted a portfolio in which the work might not be all the way there yet, but there’s something potentially really interesting that is developing.
It’s a hard thing to put a finger on, but I respond to work when I have a feeling that the work is really somebody’s own; that they are doing something of their own, maybe something that I haven’t seen anyone else do. It’s less about novelty than it is about an artist having a voice that they’ve settled into. That is compelling, and you can see that. It truly does show up. Those are the submissions that stand out, and they have become easier to recognize over time.
It’s also taught me that it’s really important to have documentation that does your work justice. I’ve seen portfolios from artists who unfortunately fail to think enough about that and submit documentation that makes it hard for me to know what I’m looking at. Sometimes there aren’t enough details or there is too much work. Sometimes it is a much better strategy to focus on a few things shown really thoroughly. I’ve learned a lot from that just as an artist. When you’re in the position of having to represent yourself with fifteen images, an artist’s statement and a CV, how do you best use that opportunity?
How many artists are currently in the Viewing Program registry?
There are around two thousand right now.
The exhibition programming at The Drawing Center and the work in the Viewing Program definitely feature a broad interpretation of what drawing can be. Can you talk about that?
An expanded definition of drawing has always been a hallmark quality of The Drawing Center as an institution. One of the things people immediately associate with the institution is that its view of drawing is not limited to marks on a piece of paper on a wall. For me, as an artist who works in a very hybridized way, this is particularly interesting to me. I’m personally interested in the question of what drawing can be and what can it do. What might be drawing that I haven’t considered as drawing before? I may be particularly inclined to gravitate to work like that.
Some media have a curious relationship to drawing. Painting and printmaking undeniably have very close connections to drawing but in some ways don’t necessarily stretch our understanding of what drawing can do. For example, I might see a video submission and realize I’ve never considered drawing through this angle. That may be a submission that is more appropriate for us to accept for the Viewing Program than one that is a body of work solidly grounded in painting. That’s something I sometimes have to explain when painters get confused about why they may not have been accepted. Painting is a certain conversation into itself, and as an institution we are more interested in what drawing is unto itself and we’re also interested in this expanded definition that allows us to consider drawing in new ways.
I’d like to switch gears and talk about your dual roles as artist and curator. The exhibition you curated in 2010 at The Drawing Center called Day Job highlighted the interesting and complicated relationship between artists’ “work” and their work in a very meaningful way. You are both a successful artist and curator and I’m wondering about the relationship between your curatorial projects and studio work. Can you talk about that?
That was a very personal show for me because, you know, this is my day job. The topic of the job certainly comes up a lot in conversation with artists in the Viewing Program meetings. And I do about 250 meetings a year so there’s a lot of conversation, not just about the work but about people’s lives, too. I was struck by the fact that there are often these stories about what an artist does for a living and how, in some interesting way, that work has made its way into their practice.
It’s also a topic that sometimes people don’t want to talk about. It’s often the elephant in the room. I don’t think there’s anything there to be ashamed of. It’s a very common reality: people have to work full or part-time. One very nice thing about the feedback from that show was that people felt some measure of relief that this topic was finally out in the open, and that there could be very positive effects on the work as the result of having a job, beyond the obvious financial aspect.
The show was filled with positive examples of how people manage to work a job and keep making their work. These are artists whose jobs are having a positive effect on their creative practice. I do think that can be the case when you get into the right balance, which can be hard but it can be done.
It was a personal show, and it forced me to think about how this job has influenced my own work. It’s not as straightforward as, let’s say, “Once I started working at The Drawing Center I began to draw more.” Drawing is something that I do very privately and I’m not known as an artist who exhibits drawing. I think I’ve exhibited drawings only two times in my entire career. But when I started this job in 2006-2007 I was very heavily involved in video installation. Big, complicated, room-sized things that involved a lot of technology and a lot of time in front of the computer. I found I was very jealous of these artists who came in with these works that had been made directly with their hands in a way that had a direct contact with things I was really missing. Many artists worked in a way that meant their work could be made anywhere.
The project I’ve been so wrapped up in recently, called Seat Assignment, which was recently shown at Catharine Clark in San Francisco, has in some ways been an oblique response to this desire to work more with my hands. Seat Assignment is basically a photography project, but in some ways it is a sculpture project, too. I’m making these tiny constructions in front of me and the work is very materially engaged. In a funny way you could consider it as a reaction to seeing the work of these artists who have such a direct relationship to the materials they are using.
That’s interesting. I would never have looked at it that way but I can completely see what you’re saying.
I hadn’t looked at it that way either until it happened (laughter).
Changing course a little, exhibitions at The Drawing Center have showcased an incredible array of artists, subject matter and materials ranging from Michelangelo to Gerhard Richter to the Prinzhorn Collection. Can you highlight any particular exhibitions or projects that stand out in your mind as pivotal moments?
Before I began working at The Drawing Center I would go see shows there all the time, so I have some favorite shows that I’ve seen there over the years. The Prinzhorn Collection, the Plains Indian Ledger Drawings, the Shaker Gift Drawings are among the historical shows I saw before I started working there that I really learned so much from and thought a lot about.
In more recent years, since I’ve been working at The Drawing Center, I really enjoyed Matt Mullican: A Drawing Translates the Way of Thinking, Gego: Between Transparency and the Invisible (which was my first introduction to her work). The Iannis Xenakis show was a big revelation to me because I’m really interested in sound art and he’s an architect who is also a composer who also drew. Those things came together in a really fascinating way. It was a show that opened my eyes to a lot of things.
I’d love to talk about your connection to the Bay Area and your exhibition Seat Assignment at Catharine Clark earlier this year here in San Francisco.
I grew up in Stanford, California because my dad taught there. I was a faculty brat among many other faculty brats (laughter). It was an amazing place to grow up. Now that I’m older I’m able to realize how unusual it is to have two Nobel prizewinners on your block. The adults who I just thought of as so-and-so’s mother or father when I was a kid turned out to be amazing scholars in their own right, which I only realized once I became an adult. It’s really a pretty special place. I went to Gunn High School and after that felt like it would be good to see another part of the country, so I opted to go east for college.
I went to Brown where I studied both Literature and Art. I really had no intention of being an artist when I got there. I became interested in art while I was in college. In fact, I was much more interested in writing and I thought I was going to be a radio journalist but I got derailed (laughter).
I got my MFA at UC San Diego, so I came back to California for a few years. It was jarring at first because I thought it would be similar to where I grew up in California, but its kind of another culture. But I grew to love it. I had a great experience there.
I still identify very much as a Californian. When anyone asks if I’m from New York I always clarify that I am from California, but live in Brooklyn. I’m very picky about that.
As for Seat Assignment, it’s been a very exciting few months as that project became more public. One of the groups of photographs (Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style) I made had a viral moment, and I’ve never experienced anything like that on that scale. It was both very strange and exciting. I ended up flying out to San Francisco for a couple of days because ABC News Nightline wanted to do a feature on the project. So we got on the plane together and flew out and they videotaped while I was making things and we did an interview on the plane and a second interview in the gallery.
It’s pretty exciting and little bit terrifying because they told me more than twelve million viewers watch the show.
Your work struck an incredible nerve. The only art coverage I’ve ever seen on a major television news show was Morley Safer’s trip to Art Basel Miami on 60 minutes (laughter).
They told me to brace myself and not to put my personal email on my website. It’s very exciting, but I’m also a little flipped out because I have absolutely no control over how they edit the piece. I’ve really had to let go of that and let it be whatever it is (laughter). And the Nightline guys were just great. It was a good collaborative working experience and I am waiting in nervous anticipation to see what it turns out to be.
It was a pretty tough thing to work on the plane. It could not have been a less natural situation, with so many people watching and cameras rolling. I don’t think I made anything that brilliant, actually.
Do you have any projects or events coming up that you’d like to mention?
In San Francisco, I’m talking with the Exploratorium about doing something down the line once their new facility opens up. That’s something I’m really excited about. As a kid, I went on countless numbers of field trips to the Exploratorium. It was one of the staples of my elementary school experience. I love that place and I’m very attached to it so it’s a very cool thing to think that I may get the chance to make something there one day.
I’ve worked with Catherine Clark for thirteen or fourteen years so Seat Assignment was my fifth solo show with the gallery. It’s really wonderful to have a professional life that brings me back to the Bay Area as well as a set of personal reasons for coming back. A lot of my friends and family are still there.
There are many discussions afoot right now about where Seat Assignment might be shown in New York. In the meantime, I keep traveling as necessity dictates and adding material to the project as I go, so it has already changed quite a bit since the show on the west coast. I’m always catching up to the project, in fact.
I’m busy right now with a book that will be published in spring 2013, about a long running project called the Sorted Books project. Chronicle Books in San Francisco is publishing a 20-year look back at the project. It started when I was still in graduate school; I never thought it would be something I’d still be adding to. The basic idea is that I go into a book collection, which could be a public library or a privately-owned book collection, and arrange books into groups so that their titles read in order to become a phrase or sentence. I think of it as a portraiture project. This summer I had a show of the most recent Sorted Books project which was a commission for the Delaware Art Museum, working with their collection of decorative bindings, with books dating from 1870-1920. At the moment, I’m particularly interested in working in historical collections like that one.
Since it’s an election year, I’ve also been showing a piece called “Monument to the Unelected” which was made before the last election in 2008 as a commission for the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The piece consists of 56 election signs, on corrugated plastic, as those signs always are, and the signs have the names of every candidate who ever ran for presidential office, and lost. All the signs are designed in a current-day graphic design vernacular, so it’s quite jarring to see names like “John Quincy Adams” appear on a lawn sign. The piece really shows our collective “road not taken,” in a sense, and in that sense is quite politically neutral (since you can be happy or sad about any one of those signs), even though it borrows from the tropes of contemporary political advertising campaigns. The piece was shown at The Boiler in Brooklyn this summer, and at the Aldrich Museum’s “united states” show that runs through this fall, and it will also travel to the windows of the Washington Post headquarters this September. I’m very curious how the particularly politics and history-savvy DC population will react to the piece.
Sounds wonderful. Thank you so much for talking with me.
Absolutely. Thank you.