• Learning to relax with Jamillah James

    Date posted: April 8, 2014 Author: mauri
    Curator Jamillah James. Photo credit: Anna Carnochan
    Curator Jamillah James. Photo credit: Anna Carnochan

    I come from a musical background; my mother studied music in school, later teaching vocal and instrumental music in Newark public schools, and I grew up learning and playing multiple instruments. As a young person, I didn’t have much exposure to the visual arts, other than the occasional visit to the Met or the Newark Museum on grade school field trips. As a teenager, I began venturing into New York on my own, and would sometimes stop into museums. Probably the most formative exposure to visual arts I can remember would be a visit to the (now defunct) Guggenheim Soho. It was here that I can recall Nam June Paik’s America, a few neons by Bruce Naumann and some LED works by Jenny Holzer were on view.

    A later trip to MoMA on the occasion of the Chuck Close solo exhibition before I left for college spurred my registering in an art history class during my freshman year. Initially enrolled as a film student. I responded most to time-based media, which later unfolded into many years of interest and study.

    I took studio art classes (mainly sculpture) in college, which didn’t work out so well for me. Fun and embarrassing fact—I failed drawing in college; equal parts lack of ability and also absences accumulated because I went on tour with the band I was playing in at the time.

    I moved to Chicago in 2001, and became active in the DIY art and music scene. Since Chicago is far less expensive than New York you can get rather huge spaces to do pretty much anything you’d like. I began booking music in a space I founded; eventually, we got kicked out of that place and I moved into a live/work space that was being operated by a number of School of the Art Institute students. They were already doing visual arts programming, and I brought music into the mix. Organizing and working with bands really appealed to me, and I was already taking studio and art history classes, while living in this amazing 5000 square foot loft. With some encouragement from professors at school, I began working on what would become my first exhibition. It was a sound and homemade instruments show coalescing both my interest in art and music.

    I’m a conceptually driven curator. The idea for exhibitions starts from something that I’m puzzling over—relationships, or the desire to further examine and unpack some connection I’ve seen between one artist’s work and another. Generally, I’ve worked top down; that is, coming to a question or problem I’d like to answer, and bringing works or artists to the table that I think work best in helping me arrive at some solution. Sometimes, a formal relationship evolves, but I wouldn’t say this is always a driving factor in how I organize exhibitions. With a variety of perspectives on the table, it only makes sense that each work or artist will have a personality or visual character of its own, and I’m not especially interested in privileging one approach or style over another.

    The world of television has given me some of my better ideas. I expanded on this in a lecture I gave at MoMA PS1 last fall with the Center of Experimental Lectures. I spend a good amount of time after work watching television on the internet—my “stories,” as I like to call them, and I would be lying to say media hasn’t influenced my thinking, even in the smallest way.

    The art world is not impervious to pop cultural influence, and if there’s one thing I can appreciate about the steaming landfill that is pop and celebrity culture today, it is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously—and I think we can all gain something from that attitude.

    I’ve mostly worked with emerging artists, but I’ve had opportunities to work with established artists as well. Putting both younger/emerging artists side by side with the more established ones can be a great curatorial tool. It helps to show how a relationship can emerge both laterally between artists and over time.

    Feedback is most helpful, as is the working friendships developed with artists I’m collaborating with on a project. As an emerging curator, each exhibition is an opportunity to refine my process and expand my way of curatorial thinking. The feedback and support I receive is undoubtedly critical to my growth.

    In summer 2012, I was part of the curatorial team for Dirty Looks: On Location, an extension of the LGBT traveling film series, Dirty Looks. The premise of DLOL was to activate spaces in New York with some connection to queer social history.

    For my contribution, I set up mobile screening units in front of (or near) places that no longer exist—ghost spaces, if you will. I powered a television monitor or projector from the battery of a rented U-Haul, and people could come and hang out in the van and watch video art. The works I screened were Marlon Riggs’s Anthem (1990), Joan Braderman’s Joan Does Dynasty (1986), and Cheryl Dunye’s She Don’t Fade (1991). The sites I activated were the former homes of Peter Rabbit’s, a black queer nightclub on the West Side Highway (near Chelsea Piers, a once legendary cruising zone, and the “Trucks”, where one could have quick and easy no-strings attached sex); the Flamingo, which was home to the longest running lesbian dance night; and Uncle Charlie’s Downtown in the West Village, which hosted a weekly Dynasty night throughout the 80s.

    At this moment, I’m most interested in painting. I didn’t expect this to ever happen, since I was, until a few years ago, quite hostile to it. Still, the multiplicity of approaches to this timeworn tradition leaves many points of entry, and I think the de-emphasis on “pure” painting (that is, non-medium specificity, the “casual” or “provisional”, etc.) is what’s attracted me to study it more. I also respond to things that are incongruous, weird, “ugly,” uncanny, or unexpected.

    I am my own worst critic, and like many other “cultural producers” I am deeply neurotic, and often have serious doubts about my work. I recently had the experience of having an established artist I love and respect very much telling a colleague of mine they thought my most recent exhibition, Brothers and Sisters was “beautiful.” Talk about affirming! It’s moments like that that encourage me to keep working and to relax.

    I’m taking a little breather this fall to concentrate on applying to doctoral programs and to teach a short seminar at RISD. I’m still confirming a possible 1-2 person exhibition for January in Brooklyn. In the spring, I’ll be working with Vox Populi in Philadelphia, curating a 2 month program of performances, screenings and lectures for their new space, AUX. Philadelphia in spirit reminds me of Chicago and Baltimore, where I really got my start with curating, so I’m very excited to spend more time there!

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