Since circumstances prevented James Rosen from visiting St. Louis during the exhibition, we are going to record a conversation between Rosen and MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., this coming week of February 20, 2011. If all goes well, we plan to make the conversation available through our website. We already have a number of questions we want to ask Rosen, but we would like to include one or more questions from our audience.
If you have a question you would like to ask James Rosen about his work, please e-mail it to us, post it on our Facebook wall, or call us at 314-977-7170. Please make your question as specific as possible, and include your first name and last initial, as well as your location. Questions must be received by Thursday morning, February 24.
We cannot guarantee that all questions will be used in the interview, but will include as many as we can. We are excited to be adding a new dimension of artist interaction to our programming, and hope you will consider participating in this experiment.
James Rosen’s artwork, especially his oil and wax/oil emulsion paintings, combines with MOCRA’s former chapel setting to establish an environment of great tranquility and solace. If you are in the St. Louis region this weekend and need a break from the holiday bustle, we welcome your visit.
The staff of MOCRA wish everyone a restful and joyful Thanksgiving holiday.
James Rosen: The Artist and the Capable Observer is the featured exhibition in this week’s “Art Capsule” reviews in the Riverfront Times. Critic Jessica Baran remarks on Rosen’s distinctive oil and wax/oil emulsion technique that results in “a work that straddles abstraction and realism.”
MOCRA’s exhibition James Rosen: The Artist and the Capable Observer, was reviewed in the Sunday, October17, 2010, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reviewer Sarah Bryan Miller notes the “mysterious and lingering” effect of Rosen’s wax and oil/wax emulsion paintings. She also touches on the central implication of the exhibition’s title: “James Rosen’s paintings make demands on the observer’s time: time of contemplation, time for consideration, time for appreciation.”
We hope that you will take the time to read the review, and to visit the exhibition.
Curating an exhibition involves many decisions, major and minor, no matter what the work or the venue. MOCRA’s space presents particular challenges but also some intriguing possibilities. Allow me to share a few notes from the planning and installation of our current exhibition, James Rosen: The Artist and the Capable Observer.
In this case, we had a superabundance of materials from which to choose, as MOCRA has on long-term loan or in its collection a significant body of works by Rosen. The majority are works on paper, including numerous sketches and studies. With nary a false note in the mix, we sought to identify a modest number that would demonstrate succinctly the qualities of Rosen’s work we wanted to highlight: the confidence and fluidity of his line in drawings, the subtlety of his watercolors and gouaches, his analysis of old master works for composition and form, and the occasional wry, playful image amidst more “serious” work.
Beyond the works on paper, we selected from a number of paintings, some quite intimate in scale, one an 8-foot tall canvas. Early on we made a decision to draw primarily on works in our collection or on long-term loan, to be supplemented by a few select works borrowed from collectors or other institutions. This decision helped frame the exhibition, not as a comprehensive retrospective, but as a generous survey of Rosen’s six-decade career.
A natural approach to this material would be a chronological presentation, but here we ran up against the challenges of MOCRA’s configuration, with its twelve intimate side chapel galleries and soaring nave gallery (see these earlier posts for some discussion of repurposing a 1950s chapel as a museum space). Smaller works are best served by the side chapels, and of necessity the large works have to be placed in the nave gallery. Furthermore, visitors may begin by heading down the south side aisle, or find themselves drawn into the nave gallery, so although we can try to encourage a particular pathway, we can’t ensure that visitors will travel the way we want them to.
We did an initial layout of the smaller works along chronological lines, but soon saw that we wouldn’t be able to carry that approach through consistently. Instead, we began to think in terms of theme or subject matter, with chronology and medium as secondary criteria. With this approach, things quickly began to shape up in the side chapels along the categories of Figuration and Portraiture; Architecture; and, Landscape and Abstraction. The limitations of space helped us further refine the selection of works, and the introduction of wall cases for the unframed works helped to anchor the arrangement of framed works.
Meanwhile, we had the larger works to consider. From early on, MOCRA’s Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J., knew that he wanted to present six “Saints” paintingsl from Rosen’s two-year sojourn in Ferrara, Italy, together in one half of the nave gallery, along with the monumental Homage to Guido da Siena: La Maestà. His hope was to create a meditative space that would invite visitors to slow down and experience the subtle luminosity of Rosen’s work, to allow the work time to reveal itself. A generous number of chairs reinforces this invitation.
The other half of the gallery would display the Homage to the Isenheim Altarpieceand the Homage to the Pietà d’Avignon. Unfortunately, that left one large wall unaccounted for: how to balance out two major works? The solution was a combination of a wall case with three small portraits above it, and flanked by two medium-sized paintings, all on religious subjects.
One of the side chapel galleries on each side faces a gap in the long nave walls, so any work in that gallery can be seen from a relatively distant vantage point across the nave. Normally we place visually commanding works in those chapels, works that might seem confined in the other side chapels. In this case, we saw a way to link the side chapels with the nave. We placed works relating to Rosen’s time in Ferrara in the side chapel, including his images of an old monastery called the Certosa. Thus, with the help of the labels and wall texts, visitors can look out from the chapel at the Saints paintings produced during that time, while the wall case in the nave contains studies and drawings produced during the time in Ferrara.
Speaking of texts, throughout the process of selecting and placing works, we were also considering what sort of labeling and didactic texts would be used. How much should be made explicit in terms of “categories”? How could we give visitors sufficient context and bearings, without overwhelming them or the artwork with text? Fortunately, Rosen is articulate in discussing his process and aims, and we looked for opportunities whenever possible to let him tell his own story.
The final stage in the installation process is the lighting — never a simple matter with 28-foot ceilings, and a particular challenge with Rosen’s favored oil and wax/oil emulsion medium. Our initial lighting scheme was very subdued, especially in the nave gallery. One of our student workers remarked that it was so dim he was afraid he would doze off during his shift! The light also gave a color cast to paintings at those low levels, even though it tends to bring out subtleties of detail. There was also the safety of our visitors (avoiding trip hazards) to consider. So, the lights came up a few notches, and we hope we have struck a good balance that shows the work to its best advantage.
Each exhibition tells a story; sometimes it is one consciously framed by the curators, sometimes it is implicit. We hope that with The Artist and the Capable Observer we have been able to highlight several chapters from James Rosen’s long, varied, and productive career, allowing the artist himself to draw our attention to both the significant and the subtle.
The opening of the James Rosen exhibition is looming, and (not unpredictably) we are intently making final decisions about placement of the work, editing the wall texts and labels, and calculating how much capacity remains in the storage closets to sweep up all the detritus before the company arrives on Sunday.
James Rosen: The Artist and the Capable Observeropens this coming Sunday, September 26, with a free public reception from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. We are disappointed that, due to unforeseen circumstances, Mr. Rosen can’t be with us for the opening. However, we are optimistic that he will be able to visit St. Louis later this fall for a public lecture and master class.
On Saturday, MOCRA takes part in Saint Louis University’s Homecoming celebrations, and everyone benefits–we’ll be open for a sneak preview of the exhibition from 11 to 4 p.m. Overlapping with that, MOCRA will be participating in a gallery walk from 1 to 4 p.m. The gallery walk coincides with the fourth annual Dancing in the Street Festival, featuring more than 50 dance companies and 700 dancers, and the Earthways Center’s Green Homes Festival.
We are finally at my favorite phase of exhibition preparation, when everything begins to gel. The internal logic of the installation has become apparent and, made manifest in the works hung on the walls, begins to yield new insights into the work.
Along the way, we have moments of levity amidst the stress. For instance, several staff members have commented on the way that Mary peers out at us from one work, Homage to Guido da Siena: Maestà. It’s an inversion of the exhibition title–the artwork becomes the “capable observer”–an effect enhanced by the positioning of the work in its traveling frame:
We hope to see you this Saturday, Sunday, or in the coming weeks.