Kim Russo Interviews Matthew McLendon

Matthew McLendon became the new Associate Curator of contemporary art at the Ringling Museum of Art in January, 2010. Before coming to Sarasota, McLendon was the Curator of Academic Initiatives at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He completed his PHD in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London in 2004.

Kim Russo – Department Head – Ringling College of Art and Design

Kim Russo is an artist, a writer, and an educator. Her upcoming solo exhibition, Family, at the Cornell Museum of Fine Arts in Winter Park, Florida, opens October 22.  Russo has received residency fellowships from Caldera Arts, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Americans for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Her drawings are included in the permanent collections of the New Mexico Museum of Art (Santa Fe, New Mexico) and the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum (Lafayette, Louisiana), as well as the private collections of Glenn Horowitz (New York), Shana Nys Dambrot (Los Angeles), Amanda and and Keith Innes (Santa Fe), Patti Crews (Dallas), Lynn Marchand Goldstein (Santa Fe), and Cyndi Conn (Santa Fe).

Russo has written for the Journal Santa Fe and the The New Mexican. Her current writing project, about what we can learn from contemporary artists who are practicing Buddhists, has been supported by a Lenz Fellowship in Buddhist Studies and American Culture and Values from Naropa University. An interview from this project was recently published on NPR’s OnBeing Blog.

Russo was born in Darby, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. She received her BFA from Tyler School of Art (Temple University) and her MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington.  Russo lives and works in Sarasota, Florida, where she became the Head of Fine Arts at Ringling College of Art + Design in 2009. Her studio resume and examples of her work can be viewed at kimrusso.net.  Kim Russo writes on two blogs:  Art Envelope and newART Sarasota, a forum for serious and progressive thinking about contemporary art in and around Sarasota.

How is it going so far?

I have been overwhelmed by the support. People come up to me and tell me how excited they are that I am here, and they are excited that the museum is renewing its commitment to modern and contemporary art. When I curated the 20th century abstract art exhibition (which opened at the end of May 2010), we thought it would only be up 7 months. But museum members have been coming back again and again to see it, and we have continued it. I had great conversations with people in the community about Yinka Shonabare’s work when we hosted it here (July 30 –October 24, 2010). I’ve been interested in Yinka’s work for a long time. Here is this major contemporary figure and he was completely new to community of Sarasota, and I was cautious about that because it can be provocative work that involves weighty issues, complex postmodern issues. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Even if some visitors didn’t like it they were able to see it as important and they were receptive to learning more. People told me I would have a hard time in Sarasota but that has not been my experience at all.

Will everyone be turned on by contemporary art? Absolutely not. For some people it will never be their thing and I respect that. I am always here for them if they want to learn more, but I do understand, for whatever reason, that some people just don’t want to open up to modern or contemporary art. But I think Sarasota is more open to this work than they get credit for — or give themselves credit for.

How do you encourage new audiences to open up to new or difficult contemporary work?

You need get past the fear–the fear of not understanding or not getting it. It becomes simply about education. I am doing this with the docent core at the museum because no one has been here talking about contemporary art for 15 years. There is a lot of education that has to go on.

The first two lessons are about alleviating fear. The first lesson is that you don’t have to like it. I don’t like Salvador Dali, but I understand his place in history, his importance. He was technically amazing, and I can appreciate that, but I don’t want a Dali in my house. People think they have to like Picasso, or Duchamp, or Jenny Holzer. What you do have to understand is an artist’s appropriate place in the history of art or in the present discourse. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with you if you don’t like something.

The second lesson is that your initial response can be completely formal or aesthetic: I like the space, the color, the line, the texture—and if that is where you stop that is fine. Maybe later you get curious and want to do the research to find out more. So much contemporary art is conceptual. In order to understand it you need to know its social context, its geographical locust, the artist’s particular perspective–and that brings up a lot of anxiety. But it is valid to have a formal or visceral response instead of an intellectual one. People also think the formal or aesthetic response has to be a warm feeling but it is equally valid to have a response of anger or revulsion.

What inspired you to become a curator? Did you choose it or did you fall into it?

I fell in, but of course I also chose it. I did my Master’s in art history and I intended to go into the commercial world. But I loved my professor and I stayed to do a PHD. As an undergrad I worked for The Tate and then was lucky to be hired by them while I was doing my PhD. I feel in love with the spark that you could see in people in the gallery when they finally arrived at a new concept. And that spark was brought about by direct experience with the object. When I was studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art, once a week I’d go sit in front of a Manet or a Van Gogh. I was steeped in the object, having direct experiences in the galleries with important works, and that became very important for me.

My creative background is in performance–I can’t make visual art. I can’t draw a stick figure. My PHD is in the Italian Futurists, 
not contemporary art, but I approached my subject through the lens of postmodern theory. Now that I am firmly in the contemporary art world, what I love most is the time I get to spend with artists learning about their process. So for me, I remain in love with the object, and then the other side of the coin is the artist and the close interaction I get to have with person who made the object.

Which you can’t have with dead artists.

Right. But sometimes I wonder why I gave up the dead artists because they don’t argue with the curator. *laughing*

One of reasons I decided to do museum work instead of teaching is because I bore easily with a set routine. In the museum, every day there are surprises, things that have to be done immediately, or a major collector is in town and you don’t know that until they call you up for lunch–so I am constantly rearranging my life and I thrive on that. But academic life can be more regimented, teaching the same classes again and again. I do love teaching, though, and am fortunate to have the opportunity to teach for both FSU and New College. It sounds trite, but I truly learn so much from my students.

What’s your next curatorial project?

Zimoun. Do you know his work?

I don’t.

Zimoun is based in Bern, Switzerland. He makes kinetic sound sculpture—he is absolutely incredible! I am excited.

People ask me how I find the artists I show. You can’t know every artist and know everything that is going on, of course. In the case of Zimoun, our amazing exhibition designer, Matthew Harmon, emailed me a video of Zimoun’s work. Matthew was interested in the installation. He said, “These installations are so clean and minimal, the kind or work I want to do.” I was instantly rapt. I wanted to get the artist here. And you know, he is the nicest guy in the world, which makes it better. This will be different than anything Sarasota has ever seen.

As the curator I have to interpret his work, but I have to mediate his intention along with that. Zimoun is self-taught. Zimoun did not try to be part of the history of kinetic art. There is a great history of kinetic art that he is unaware of–purposely–and as an art historian that is an interesting conundrum. I am not sure yet how I will approach that.

What is your response to the public response to Beyond Bling?

Beyond Bling was a surprising show here. The public response was overwhelmingly positive–and that was touching to me. It meant a lot to me. A number of people told me how brave I was. I didn’t know I was being brave. And it wasn’t brave because Sarasota is already changing and expanding.

I’m really proud that I am continuing to help diversify the museum’s cannon. The collection is about Western masterpieces, so to have three huge galleries devoted to work by different types of people and also representing different types, that is what I am most proud of. It is the nature of any western collection that it is limited. In the Ringling Museum there are three or four, I think, depictions of people of color, and except for one they are all subservient. So to have a major representation of people of color here sparked a great conversation in which we were talking very frankly about race, gender and sexual orientation. For example, in the labels of Mickalene Thomas’ work. there was information about the power dynamic between the female artist and the female subject, which of course was playing with the historical objectification of women in Western art.

Which conversations in the contemporary art world are exciting you right now?

*quiet pause* That is difficult to answer because there is so much going on. *another pause* For a while now, there has been a return to the figure–and there is still a lot of conceptual work–but for 10 years there has been more and more figurative work. A return to neo-romanticism. An example is someone like Hernan Bas–he is a Floridian and an international artist. Why is there this neo-romantic stream in contemporary art now? Are we reacting to the same conditions that were present during the first Romantic period? Romanticism came out of mass industrialization and we are going theorough a cyber-industrialization now, a time of great political instability. There is something comfortable about the figure–it anchors. Maybe, too, because of the global destabilization that occurred because of 9/11. At the Contemporary Art Caucus at the College Art Association conference, the UCLA art historian Miwon Kwon got up and basically said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I don’t know what contemporary art is. There is contemporary Chinese art, contemporary American art, contemporary British art, contemporary Korean art–how does that all fit under the contemporary art umbrella? These are such different voices. I don’t know how we make it all fit.” And I struggle with that. What is the contemporary voice I will bring to the Ringling Museum that will be colored by my subjectivity and identities? I need to be self-reflective about that, because there is a broad voice to include. But if I think about it too much I might never leave my bedroom. *laughs*

Tell me about the Turrell Skyspace that is being installed now.

It is a great honor to work on a Turrell Skyspace. It has been ten and a half years in the making. Ours is one of only two public Skyspaces on the east coast, it is the only in one in Florida, and it is one of the largest and most technically sophisticated. The installation of a Skyspace work was brainchild of previous director, John Wetenhall, who envisioned it as part of the redesign of the Ringling Museum campus. It is a signifier of our renewed commitment to modern and contemporary art. When the John Ringling bought the four Rubens in the 1920s that was an audacious act. In my mind the Skyspace is the audacious act for the next 100 years of the museum’s legacy.

The Skyspaces are truly experiential works of art. We live in a crazy world, a crazy, frenetic world. My email has gone off 10 times since we sat down for this interview. We are all pulled in so many directions, and we are expected to be reachable 24/7. A museum is perhaps the last secular space of duration where the point is to have an extended experience, and the Turrell is even more so an extended experience. Where else are you invited to sit down and look at the sky? And as you sit for 5, 10 minutes, and you start to see the vast changes in sky that you never notice, you become refreshed, because for 5, 10, 20, 30 minutes you have had an extended experience. The Turrell is about looking, but there is no narrative, no history–it is totally and only the present moment. Where else in our lives is that the point?