On making art happy: in conversation with independent curator Chris Sharp

Chris Sharp never set out to become a curator. The independent writer, curator and co-founder of micro hybrid project space, Lulu in Mexico City, thought originally of becoming a novelist. While these literary leanings are long in the past, their influence remains present in Chris’ animated and prolific arts writing. Chris has written artist monographs and contributed critical texts to publications on the work of numerous artists from around the world. He was previously news editor at Flash Art International and editor-at-large of Kaleidoscope, is currently a contributing editor of Art Review and Art Agenda and has been published in many major and independent art magazines and online publications. But for Chris, the activity of writing is fundamentally separate from the process of curating. “Exhibition making is a kind of non-linguistic, non-communicative writing in itself,” he says. And as such, allows each pursuit its own space and place. Working internationally, Chris’ curatorial focus is on materiality – the literal stuff of ideas. The artists he characteristically works with are each concerned with the politics of their own practice, exploring ideas through form, space and medium. 

Chris Sharp, photo: Ana Hop

AMM: Hi Chris. What led you to get into curation? 

CS: It was all an elaborate, felicitous accident. I studied French literature, and had every intention of becoming a (French?) novelist, not a curator. I was living in Paris just after graduating college, and ended up working in art mostly as a way to make money, although I was of course very interested in contemporary art. I found a job working as an assistant for the artist Piotr Uklanski and around the same time (2006), a local gallerist, Fabienne Leclerc, for reasons that are still a mystery to me, invited me to curate her summer group show. I never had any intention of becoming a curator, but I thought I’d give it a shot. I did, and it worked out very well. I loved curating that show. I loved it because it became clear to me that I could participate in the trajectory of a given work of art, even become, if only momentarily, its co-author, à la Barthes, without having to own it or actually create it ex nihilo. It could come into and touch my life and the lives of others and then go on its way. There was a special, “creative” agency to this process, which did not necessarily add or subtract anything from the world, but only temporarily reconfigured and fleetingly modified a series of already extant elements.

I also realized that I had a knack for establishing and negotiating the discussions and spatial relationships between works of art. I was lucky enough to understand almost immediately that it was simply a question of knowing or being able to intuit whether or not works of art were happy together. Although I have made and continue to make many mistakes, grasping this basic rule right off the proverbial bat has kept me on the side of art and artists. But this rule is not difficult to grasp. Everyone knows when art is happy or unhappy, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it. Unhappy art looks like shit or is in the wrong company. And just looks, well, unhappy.

Lin May Saeed, Djamil, installation views

AMM: Curation is in a way central and peripheral at the same time. How do you view your position in the art ecosystem? 

CS: I think I am something of a mutant in so far as I inhabit a grey area between writer, curator and (fake) gallerist. Given that I run a space which functions according to a hybrid non-profit model (we sell art, but do not represent artists, in order to fund the program), continue to write and curate exhibitions internationally, I operate, ethically
I believe, in an implicitly forbidden zone of mutually exclusive positions. Were I driven by a desire for economic gain, this so-called mutant position could be problematic. But my motives are wholly driven by what I believe to be the good fight, e.g., endorsing and presenting art which challenges conventions and promotes genuine discussions around certain works of art and artists.

AMM: What’s your style of curation? Do you work quite collaboratively with artists or take the lead? What is your understanding of the role of the curator?

CS: It depends. At Lulu, the process is often collaborative, even if I always have a very strong sense of what I want or am looking for. Otherwise, I am a bit of a tyrant in that I often know exactly what I want and how it should be presented, although I am not foolish enough to believe that
I always know what’s best.

The role of the curator, as far as I am concerned, is to facilitate and mediate the presentation of art in the best possible way. In other words, to make art happy. This means prioritizing art over ideas.

AMM: Do you have a particular curatorial methodology that interests you and frames your work?

CS: Looking at a lot of art and trying to figure out ways to make it happy.

AMM: What are you on the lookout for in an artist’s work? What makes you want to work with a particular artist?

CS: A clear commitment to materials and making, the manifest development of their own personal, idiosyncratic language, and real problems which they are trying to solve through their work. When I say “real problems”, I mean as opposed to “borrowed problems”, which are often merely topical political issues which come and go with the day’s news. I need something real. I am interested in fully integrated artists. Artists whose politics are inseparable from the materials they use and the forms they create with those materials. Artists who think plastically.

Santiago de Paoli, installation views

Lin May Saeed, ‘Teneen Albaher Relief III’, styrofoam, steel, acrylic paint, 33.5 x 47 x 12.5cm

AMM: As a curator, how do your own preferences and taste influence what you do?

CS: Taste is a complicated issue. It is often demonized and dismissed by so-called serious professionals, as if it were inadmissible. But there is no such thing as no taste. I don’t care if you’re a militant LGBT activist or a hardcore Marxist, taste will always play a role in what you do and the exhibitions you make. Although I am aware of the risks involved, I accept and even embrace this. At the same time, I am also aware that taste cannot exclusively dictate the decisions I make as a curator. Exhibitions should and need to take place within a much greater network of considerations which go well beyond my own personal interests or problems. In any ideal world, your interests and problems naturally align with what’s going on. Even if they don’t, however, I think you can learn how to make things align – that is, if you have real problems that you’re working through.

All that said, I hasten to add that taste can never be taken for granted, but must always be interrogated. There is no real taste without a self-reflexive interrogation of that taste.

AMM: Is it apt to talk about a curator’s ‘eye’? What skills does it take to do what you do? 

CS: I think it is apt or possible to speak of a curator’s eye. It has many components. A crucial one is to think spatially, while another is to be able to connect the dots: to look at a lot of art, archive it, spot affinities, and map out common points of interest and create dialogues. I think you also need to be able to think very superficially, even, to a certain degree, like an interior designer, and ask yourself questions like, does it look good together? Sometimes curating is that basic, that simple-minded. But probably the greatest “skill” or at least capacity is a genuine love of art. This may seem like a no brainer. But you would be surprised by how many curators do not love art – who see it merely as a means rather than an end in itself.

AMM: You work on projects around the world, have you noticed any curatorial trends in the industry right now?

CS: I think there is a lot of pressure to try and respond to the terrible political and ecological turmoil of the world right now. Paradoxically, I am confident that this will help engender as many great works of art as it will inspire bad exhibitions (if you think about it, the late oughties, what with its relative political stability, did the exact opposite, at least in Europe and the States: allowed for a lot of curatorial experimentation while producing a lot of “clever”, smug, self-satisfied neo-conceptual art about art).

Miho Dohi, installation view

AMM: How do you get involved in projects? Do you approach institutions and submit proposals or do projects find you? What’s opportunity like in your field?

CS: At this point, after curating for eleven years, it’s a combination of the two. Being a maniac helps ensure for me that I always have opportunity. I have a terrible tendency to overcommit. But I think this is just because there is so much great art and great artists with whom I want to work.

AMM: How does your writing influence your curatorial work and vice versa?

CS: I think my best exhibitions take place independently of any writing. This is because exhibition making is a kind of non-linguistic, non-communicative writing in itself. Doing a lot of writing before an exhibition is liable to lead to an illustration of ideas. I often prefer the raw writing, as it were, of exhibition making itself. By the same token, I wonder if some exhibitions aren’t better as essays or even texts?

AMM: Artists often don’t like speaking about their own work. What’s your approach to interviewing artists and writing about art? 

CS: I don’t do so many interviews with artists, mostly because I am not very good at it, and because, being an egomaniac, I am often more interested in trying to figure out what I like about a given practice and what makes it interesting and unique than necessarily hearing what the artist has to say about it. Besides, they have already done the work. It’s my job to engage with it.

AMM: What led you to co-founding Lulu and how does the space operate?

CS: Lulu is the byproduct of two art rootless, peripatetic professionals – myself and Martin Soto Climent – trying to connect and consistently contribute to their local community. In some ways it totally worked, in others, I think it alienated us even further.

AMM: How do project spaces such as Lulu fit into and play a part in the art industry? 

CS: That is a good question which I am not entirely sure how to answer. Sometimes I think hybrid project spaces, which have a much more fluid relationship with artists, are the future, and at other times, I see us merely as a passing fad, which nevertheless functions as an intermediate space between the conventional gallery and the conventional institution. Like we’re the missing link, or something. Which helps connect the two.

AMM: What’s next for yourself and Lulu? 

CS: At Lulu, we are currently preparing the second edition of the Lulennial, which will be co-curated by myself and the Los Angeles-based critic, Andrew Berardini. The title of this exhibition is: A Low-Hanging Fruit, and as you might have guessed, it is indeed all about fruit. We’re doing a fake biennial about fruit. Insert smiley face emoticon here. We have an amazing list of artists, which features the likes of: Rodrigo Hernandez, Jef Geys, Allison Katz, Adriana Lara, Nancy Lupo, among many others.

As for my own non-Lulu related work, 2018 will be a busy year. I am currently preparing a solo show of Austrian artist Kiki Kogelnik for Johann König gallery Berlin, opening next March; an ambitious show about Mexico City, entitled, Dwelling Poetically: Mexico City; a case study, for the Australian Center for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, which opens in April; a survey of the American pop artist Tom Wesselmann entitled La Promesse du Bonheur for the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, which opens in June, and then lastly, a solo of Michael E. Smith for Atlantis, Marseille, opening in August, 2018. In 2019, I will co-curate the New Zealand Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, which will be a solo of the great Dane Mitchell.

Find out more about Chris: www.chrissharp.net

Text and interview by Laila Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.

Santiago de Paoli (Installation views)


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