Talking with Lumi Tan from The Kitchen

Last week, we met with curator Lumi Tan of The Kitchen! The Kitchen is a multidisciplinary, non-profit art space, hosting both gallery spaces for fine art as well as theaters for performance art, concerts, etc. The Kitchen has a long history in the New York contemporary art scene, having now existed for five decades since it was founded in 1971 as an artist collective primarily for the new realms of video and performance arts. With such a long history, star artists now essential to the art history pantheon have had their careers launched at The Kitchen, such as Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as famous musicians having performed there early in their careers such as Philip Glass.

In the future if things go back to “normal” and The Kitchen is operating normally again, I’m thrilled at the prospect of visiting. I love that this is a space for art’s sake, without the interference of money or the art market due due its non-profit nature. As these are works, pieces, and performances are made without the intention of being sold, I’m sure there’s potential for unbridled creativity instead of giving into the whims of what’s wanted in the market currently. And as someone who isn’t familiar with theater and performance art, I’m really excited to dive into these worlds, especially in a space that’s also tied to the more familiar visual/fine arts.

The Kitchen

Not having met with a curator yet, I was a bit intimidated going into the meeting, but it was very casual and Tan was extremely friendly and down to earth! She delved into her career beginnings, having graduated with a BA in art history, then working for-profit gallery jobs/internships, such as one abroad in France. She then began an internship at MoMA PS1, then gaining a full-time curation position there. It was really interesting and actually heartening to hear that she had never finished her graduate studies degree but nonetheless obtained these curation positions at PS1 and The Kitchen. I feel as though most jobs today in academia, the art world, etc. require multiple degrees (often for low pay and are extremely competitive), but it’s good to see that some employers value experience, skills, etc. rather than only degrees, especially in such regarded institutions. She also talked a bit about what a regular day at her job might be like, separating her days into two groups with the first involving installing shows/doing tech for performances, and the other days involving visiting artist studios as well as doing more administrative work such as fundraising, outreach, and thinking of future projects. I really admire how much she has on her plate in terms of the jobs she does at The Kitchen, but it also seems like two entirely different worlds curating fine art shows versus performances. 

Gallery Visits and the Future of Art

This week, our class had our first virtual gallery visits! If this had been in person, I think I would be initially intimidated as I have never stepped foot in a gallery and the gallery world seems like an entirely different universe, but the virtual transition over zoom actually helped create a more relaxed environment. Despite a few technological complications with internet service, we didn’t miss out too much on anything had we been there in person, and we were able to see the artworks at close angles to appreciate the details. I’m especially appreciative of this as the two artists whose works were displayed, Keegan Monaghan and Alex Dodge, both utilized the medium of painting to create insanely physical textures, the latter creating works that blended childhood motifs of stuffed animals with technology that I really admired.

Alex Dodge, Roger Sitting, 2020, oil and acrylic on polyester, 54 x 40 inches, 137.16 x 101.60 cm

During both visits with James Fuentes’ gallery and the Klaus Gallery, we were able to speak with the respective founders and talk about their beginnings and what it’s like to work in the industry. James and Sam come from unique backgrounds in the gallery world, as Sam was a working artist before founding Klaus, and James having grown up Latino in the Bronx and not having access to the art world at a young age. While I’m not extremely familiar with the gallery world, what I’ve heard of it can paint a picture of elitism and class issues, but it’s heartening to hear that your success isn’t solely dependent on your original wealth.

James also talked about how while he has been transforming some of his business models to be virtual in response to COVID, he believes that art is fundamentally meant to be viewed and consumed in a physical space. This led to an interesting generational debate in the class, with many people thinking that we will primarily consume media and art in a virtual manner in the future, with many welcoming it, and viewing Jame’s ideas about art as perhaps too antiquated. My opinion lies somewhere in the middle however. While I think physcially viewing artwork is the superior method, this of course isn’t always possible. Even if COVID was not an issue, museum and gallery spaces are not always accessible to everyone, especially working class people. Though viewing works on a tiny iphone screen may not be the most pleasant way to look at art, smartphones are more accessible to a larger swath of the population across class, and I have discovered more of my favorite artists and works through the internet or social media than I have by visiting museums. At any rate, our lives are increasingly spent online, so along with most other fields, I foresee art becoming even more digitized in the future. 

Eleanor Heartney on Doomsday

Eleanor Heartney’s Doomsday Dreams

This week, we had a fascinating conversation with art critic Eleanor Heartney centered around the very timely theme of “doomday” in art. Heartney had recently published “Doomsday Dreams: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Contemporary Art”, a book exploring apocalyptic narratives in art spanning centuries, from ancient Zoroastrian art to contemporary times. Heartney argues that the concept of “the end of the world” has been “deeply embedded in almost every aspect of Western culture”, especially as the three prominent religions of the western world, being Islam, Judiasm, and Christianity, all feature their own versions of the apocalypse in which the world is destroyed and every person faces judgement. And while the contemporary art world is seemingly more removed from religion, Heartney finds that ideas about the apocalypse still inform artists today, especially as the political and ecological state of the world seems more dire.

For one, I heavily related to Heartney’s upbringing as well as her views on art and religion. Describing herself as a “lapsed Catholic”, I also grew up in the Catholic church but gradually stopped attending and don’t really identify as being a member of the church anymore. While I understand and recognize the harm organized religion can bring and the ways in which it can be molded to fit political agendas, both being contributing factors to why I don’t attend church anymore, Heartney recognizes the profound influence religion has on art and our worldviews. While religion was of course the main subject manner of art for centuries, especially throughout the Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras, I think its influence is unappreciated in contemporary art despite religion not being so entwined with art as it was in the past. Heartney described so many Post-War and contemporary artists as having grown up religious, and while their works may not be explicitly about religion and they may not identify as religious anymore, their upbringings molded who they were and subsequently the art they make.

David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84.

As I said, I don’t identify as Catholic anymore, but the values and aesthetics of the church are forever ingrained into my personhood for better or for worse (such as the “fire and brimstone” ideas of the apocalypse), and the rich artistic tradition of the church still informs my tastes today which I think holds true for most people of whatever religion or culture they grew up in. And while I think religion has a lot of negative baggage as of late, and sometimes rightly so, I think that anthropological ideas about religion in which it can instill a sense of meaning in one’s life and communitas should not be ignored. 

 I also appreciated Heartney’s optimism when faced with such a dark topic in what seems like such a dark time in human history. It’s easy to become defeatist and nihilistic when faced with such a polarized political climate and a ticking climate crisis, but Heartney suggests that by creating visions of utopic ideals in art we can start transferring these concepts into the real world instead of wallowing in these images and feelings of despair.