USA Visual Arts Panel for 2010
Karen Moss (Chair)
Adjunct Curator, Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA
Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Frances and Thomas Dittmer Curator and Chair of Contemporary Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
USA Gund Fellow, New York, NY
Director, H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, MO
Statement by Rita Gonzalez
When we talk about unemployment, decreased sales, pummeled endowments at museums and foundations, and fewer venues for the arts, the urgency to reinvigorate a national concern for the health and welfare of American arts and culture seems apparent. We have all read calls for a return to the New Deal and a rebirth of the Public Works of Art Project. Yet, while many in the arts agree that there needs to be a national reassessment and appreciation of artistic labor, few agree upon whether or not we can define what it means to be an artist in the United States of America. Reflecting on the process of awarding this year’s USA Fellowships in Visual Arts has taken me from the micro-climate of the panel’s “behind closed doors” discussions to macro interpolations of what it means to be the recipient of a grant from an organization called “United States Artists.”
The name of the organization, United States Artists, in some sense shifts the emphasis from a national construct (America) to a dispersed, far ranging group (an allegiance of “states” or conditions of artistic practice). Thus, the driving concept seems to be that these artists are not engaged in parsing what it means to be an American artist but rather that these United States are defined by the creative potential of artists.
The maneuvering away from artists or art movements defining any stable identity has indeed become the norm. Over the last decade, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial has deconstructed what it means to present American artists—with diaspora and hyphenated identities even losing meaning in an era where an artist can hail from Lebanon, establish her studio practice in New York, but “live and work” part time in Beirut, New York, and Berlin. Next year, the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale will be represented by the artists Allora and Cazadilla, who, while hailing from Puerto Rico, are certainly “American” by decree, but definitely express in their work an ambivalence about the real geo-political and economic ramifications of that association.
As such it seems fitting that the artists we selected this year, diverse in all categories across the board, share one thing: all are pioneers. Not unlike avant-garde, the word “pioneer” partially derives its meaning from a militaristic station (foot solider); but bypassing the territorial and colonial implications, I invoke Merriam-Webster’s other definition: “a person or group that originates or helps open a new line of thought or activity…”
Of the group of USA Fellows, some are pioneers in defining a medium or artistic movement: Dara Birnbaum and Mary Lucier’s impact on video art; Siah Armajani and Mel Chin’s importance to installation art and art in the public sphere; and Doug Wheeler’s historical significance to the Light and Space movement as well as installation practices. “Pioneer” also seems apropos to describe the last two decades of Renée Green’s artistic career, with its simultaneous absorption and critical reexamination of identity politics, cultural studies, and institutional critique. And the word certainly does justice to Glenn Ligon’s own straddling of theoretical and formal approaches to painting. Finally, Anna Von Mertens and Allison Smith perhaps most of all have the strongest affiliation with the word as their respective bodies of work actually derive from American “pioneer” artisinal productions.
Returning to the micro—those fast-paced but thorough conversations “behind closed doors”—it was an honor to be in the presence of such esteemed colleagues. Through the process, I definitely felt the “United States” represented, and I don’t mean just the subtle “regional” differentiations, but rather the sense that this place we call the U.S.A. is made of multifarious and multitudinous practices and forms.