Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) Fall 2011 exhibition will be a presentation of selected works by American artist Adrian Kellard (1959–91). Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion opens September 24 and continues through December 11, 2011.
This installation process has been more involved than most at MOCRA. As happened with many visual artists who were struck down by AIDS in the first decade of the pandemic, the long-term disposition of his estate and works was somewhat ad hoc. Several of his works found their way into museum collections (including MOCRA’s), but many others have been safeguarded in the homes of various friends and family members. So, a certain amount of effort has been involved in locating and securing the loan of works in the exhibition.
Additionally, a number of the works are built up of multiple component pieces. In some cases, we’ve only had photos of previous installations or of the works set up in Kellard’s gallery to go on in reconstructing the works. It’s like assembling a large IKEA dining room set without the step-by-step instructions . . . that is, if IKEA’s wood products came carved in bold lines and painted in arresting yellows, reds, and teals. Kellard’s best-known work is in the stylistic tradition of German Expressionism. Household paint on pine panels was his primary medium, and his principal tool was an X-ACTO knife.
MOCRA’s installation team was recently assembling Kellard’s major altarpiece titled Healing . . . The Learned Art of Compassion. This large-scale work has an architectural quality, with a number of smaller components that come together in one grand statement. Each element, from the bold portrait of Christ to the decorative wooden fringe hanging from the canopy, contributes to the overall effect.
This work brings together many of Kellard’s common themes and sources, including visual quotes from works of religious art of the past, portraiture, Biblical references, personal biography, and an affinity to the work of the German Expressionists. Kellard’s work reflects his deep faith and a complicated set of identities: Irish-Italian ancestry, Catholic, gay. He brought all of these realities, and later on his struggle with AIDS, into his work.
MOCRA is fortunate to have the largest collection of Kellard’s work in any single art institution. Several works have been shown in MOCRA group exhibitions over the years, but now, 30 years after the identification of HIV and 20 years after Kellard’s death, we are pleased to present this solo exhibition including a number of Kellard’s most important works.
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.
On wall: Michael David, “Crowning with Thorns” (1985)
Background (partially obscured): Juan González, “Don’t Mourn, Consecrate” (1987); Michael Tracy, “Triptych: 11th, 12th and 13th Stations of the Cross for Latin America — La Pasión”; Ian Friend, “The Protestant Affliction III” (1991/92)
On wall: James Rosen, “Homage to the ‘Pietà d’Avignon'” (1989-91); Study for “Homage to the ‘Pietà d’Avignon'”
The wall that is now in the middle of the main gallery didn’t materialize out of thin air. It’s actually been hanging around MOCRA since it was built for the Fred Brown exhibition in 1996. Since then it has split in two, wandered up onto the sanctuary platform, come back together for the Latin American photography show, supported curtains for the Andy Warhol Silver Cloudsexhibitions and a rear projection screen for Miao Xiaochun’s Last Judgment in Cyberspace, and most recently doing what it was originally made for: holding Fred Brown’s “Madonna and Child” and “Descent into Hell.”
The walls don’t move themselves, of course. Relocation involves a careful coordination of muscle, carpet scraps, shims, and (of course) at least a couple of staff members to supervise and offer helpful comments.
Once the wall was in place this time, it certainly shook up the typical MOCRA floor plan. Though the giant nave is now split, I can’t say it feels fractured. It serves a great function by creating a line between stages of the Passion of Christ.
A frequent visitor comment about MOCRA, is how distinctive a venue it is for the display of art: the lofty 30-foot ceiling in the nave gallery, the twelve intimate side-chapel galleries, the hints of stained glass color that leak out from behind the window shades. It is as if the building has a memory of its previous incarnation as a chapel, a memory that imbues the space with an inviting atmosphere of contemplation and calm.
From a curatorial perspective, the space is a mixed blessing. There is a surprising amount of running wall space, yet the chapel’s configuration lends itself to some exhibitions but not others. For instance, a natural approach to organizing our upcoming exhibition would be to install the works following the sequence of events of Good Friday. But the side chapel galleries will not accommodate works larger than 6 feet wide — and one of the first works in sequence is nearly 7 feet wide!
What about grouping works by theme? This show naturally includes quite a few works that reference the Crucifixion. Should they be grouped together to allow easy comparison, or should they be distributed throughout the gallery to avoid monotony? Here again the sizes of the works provide a partial guide, as larger works had to be installed in the nave gallery. Style and media also play a role — we seek a visually harmonious installation as well a logical one.
We have made one significant adjustment to the nave gallery which will come as a surprise to visitors familiar with the museum: there is now a wall bifurcating the central gallery, effectively creating two galleries out of one large space. It takes some getting used to, but also offers a whole new way of conceiving an installation at MOCRA. Just to give you a little taste of the effect, here is a picture of the wall — sans artwork — along with a similar view from our 1994-95 exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS:
You are seeing a glimpse of Doug DePice’s Jesus in Central America – First Station of the Cross there on the left.
Stop by this Sunday, February 15, and see for yourself how we installed this exhibition. Do you agree with our choices, or would you have approached things differently?
It’s been a while since our last post, but it doesn’t mean we’ve been slacking off. We’re just over a week away from the opening of MOCRA’s next exhibition, Good Friday.
The exhibition opens on Sunday, February 15, with a free public reception from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. If you are in the St. Louis area, please stop by.
More information about the exhibition, include sample images, is available on MOCRA’s website.
It’s been busy behind the scenes as we undertake the various tasks related to a new exhibition: publicity, building out parts of the gallery, deciding on where each work will hang, writing the texts for the wall labels and didactics, and myriad other details.
For instance, this exhibition involves recreating a couple of works that haven’t been installed for some years. One by the late artist Juan González, titled Don’t Mourn, Consecrate, originally hung in the street-level windows of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. It was last shown in MOCRA’s 1994-95 exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS. The photo at right demonstrates one of the many uses for bubble-wrap, here serving to help us visualize the size and position of the stats of AIDS-related deaths that will hang to the right of the image.
Sometimes exhibition installations can send us on unexpected shopping expeditions. One work by the late artist Adrian Kellard includes a small kitchen wall clock. However, when the work arrived at MOCRA several years ago the clock did not make the journey. All we have to go on is a picture of the work in the artist’s studio. How difficult, you might ask, is it to find a clock of suitable size, style, and (significantly for the work), sound?
It turns out to be surprisingly difficult, involving rummaging around local resale shops, calling stores in the Yellow Pages, and searching on E-bay and numerous other websites. In the end, though, after a few disappointments, we found one that fit the bill.
Over the next week (in theater it’s called “Hell Week,” and that is apt for museums as well) I’ll see if I can’t get a few of the other staff members to pause long enough to share their observations and anecdotes.
In the meantime, please check out the MOCRA website for more information on Good Friday, and come by on February 15.