Curator Jon Davies champions younger artists with something distinctive to say
It’s always great to be able to introduce art world luminaries in our own backyard who are on the verge of big things. Take, for example, Jon Davies, associate curator at Oakville Galleries, who was recently awarded the inaugural Hnatyshyn Foundation Emerging Curator of Contemporary Canadian Art Award, a prize for excellence in curators under 35. His practice is defined by timely selections for solo exhibitions of emerging artists like Sonny Assu, a west coast artist whose works are rarely seen in Ontario, alongside rigorous exhibitions like Coming After, an international group show of young artists exploring “queer genealogies and cultural lineage.”
IN: Jon, the word “curate” and the concept of curating has become relatively loose lately; everyone is a curator of their objects, books, shoes, etc. But you and I are actually curators. It’s our job title. For readers who may be unclear about what a curator does at an institution like Oakville Galleries, tell us about your job on a typical day.
Jon Davies: A lot of emailing. I feel like my job is about bringing together artists and audiences, so my role as curator involves marshaling the resources I have at my disposal to help produce and to present an artist’s work for a public that will be engaged and moved when they experience it. That said, to make that moment of encounter actually happen takes a lot of communication and logistics. While it’s most rewarding to spend time looking at art and talking with artists—and at Oakville Galleries I tend to work more with younger artists, sometimes on their first solo museum show—as well as engaging in the heady work of researching and writing, just as many hours go into the nitty-gritty of figuring out how to make everything come together in our galleries. This is especially true as my job at Oakville includes coordinating all the exhibitions that we do and managing our permanent collection of contemporary art, and not only curating my own shows.
I read a really thoughtfully written curator’s statement that you wrote about your approach to organizing exhibitions. Can you share the highlights with us?
One of my roles as curator is to draw people’s attention to what I find to be of value. Artist Harrell Fletcher said: “I think of what I do as just pointing to things that are interesting so that other people will notice and appreciate them too.” I’m interested in the idea of critical discernment, but from a place of humility; there is so much art out there demanding our attention. I want to sift through it, really think about it and figure out my feelings towards it, and try to identify and champion artists’ practices that compel me. And maybe the gallery visitor will feel the same way, or if not initially, maybe I can convince them. If I am working with artists who have something distinctive to say, I also feel like I owe it to them to take a position or stance with every project as well. I just finished reading a biography of Pier Paolo Pasolini and he talked about his desire to create something personal, particular and from a minority position, which resonated with me.
Can you tell us about your seminal exhibition Coming After for The Power Plant? How did this exhibition come to fruition and what was the feedback from the show?
The exhibition actually came about during the inaugural Independent Curators International Curatorial Intensive program in New York in 2010. A group of young curators each workshopped an exhibition idea over the week. I wanted to come to terms with the complicated relationship I have to growing up queer in the 1980s and 1990s and the popular memory of the first decade of the AIDS crisis, and specifically the rise of AIDS activism and the political radicalism that seemed to define queer identity more back then. I wanted to try to account for what it means to grow up with AIDS and AIDS activism in your proximity, but at a generational remove. Thinking about “queer time,” about social spaces haunted by loss, about “missing” something intangible, I ended up working with 16 artists on the exhibition, which took over a number of different spaces inside and outside of The Power Plant with video installations, light and sound artworks, paintings that dripped over the course of the exhibition and other surprises. I have really valued the discussions that I’ve had around the show, particularly with friends and colleagues who are more politically active than I am in my life now who are critical of overly mythologizing movements like ACT UP and of having a nostalgic regard for what AIDS activism looked like in the past, when we are facing a very different global picture of AIDS now. The conversation has travelled, too; I was invited to lecture to grad students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago about the exhibition, and friends send me snapshots of the catalogue when they see it in stores in other cities.
What’s your next project?
The next project I am working on is the presentation of the full series of Shary Boyle and Emily Vey Duke’s collaborative The Illuminations Project in fall 2014 here at Oakville Galleries. I’ve been following both of their practices really enthusiastically over the past decade. So I was honoured to be approached by them about premiering, as well as touring and publishing, this really ambitious and stunning series of ink and gouache drawings (by Boyle) and texts (by Vey Duke) that grew out of their close friendship. Created between 2004 and 2010, it has 32 sets where Emily would send Shary a piece of writing; Shary would create a drawing in response and keep it to herself before creating a second drawing that she would send to Emily. Emily would continue with one text in response that she kept to herself, and one that was shared with Shary, and so on. So neither of them knew what the full project looked like until it was completed. It’s quite remarkable. Only segments of the project have been shown so far so it seemed like perfect timing to debut it 10 years after it was initiated. And it ties in with many of our programming strands, including feminist art practices and explorations of the tensions between private and public. It will also be in the gallery space at Centennial Square, which is inside the Oakville Public Library; the work partly draws on myths and fairy tales so it seems like a beautiful fit there. It will also hopefully give audiences insight into how artists with very different practices but shared concerns collaborate, think and create together.
PAMELA meredith Is TD Bank Group’s senior curator.