Wade Carey Interviews Jamie Smith on the Eve of Academy 2012 at Conner Contemporary Art

By Wade Carey on July 17, 2012


Ryan Carr Johnson/Samuel Scarf, Noland A.D. and Frankenthaler A.D. Photo Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a four article series on Academy 2012.  Read the Eric Hope Interview with Academy 2012 artist Toym Imao by clicking here

On July 7th, I visited Jamie L. Smith PhD as she prepared for the opening that evening of Academy 2012 at Conner Contemporary Art. Jamie Smith is the curator of the Academy shows and a co-founder, along with her partner Leigh Conner, of Conner Contemporary Art, located at 1358 Florida Avenue, NE. This is the 12th annual group show of the work of local student artists. The show is by now a highly anticipated event in the Washington’s art world’s annual cycle. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

Wade Carey (WC): One of the first things that I thought when I came in was how there seemed to be, either in your selection, or in the work that is coming out, a desire for depiction of what is beautiful in the world or in the execution of art. I don’t know whether that is part of the way people feel these days or whether it may have been a part of your selection process. This year, I find here more about what is beautiful or some kind of search for beauty. I don’t know if you have anything to say about that.

Jamie Smith (JS): I think that, in many ways, the artists are engaging with historical traditions in art. Beauty, or questioning what is beautiful, is certainly part of that tradition that they are analyzing and confronting.

WC: There are a couple of clues in the titles of some of the works that allude to great artists of the past. Obviously, the first one I that I came to that that was true for are these two by someone who has been in the show before.

JS: Those pieces are the result of a collaboration between Sam Scharf, who showed with us last year, and Ryan Carr Johnson, who showed with us upon completing his BFA a few years back. Ryan is entering his second year of American University’s MFA program and Sam just graduated.

WC: Did they divide up the duties? Who shot the bullets and who did the painting or were they doing both together?

JS: I’m not sure. I know they made video documentation of shooting the paintings but I’m not sure who pulled the trigger and who held the brush.

[Ed. Note: The video documentation at https://vimeo.com/42166813 does not answer that question. We will have to ask the artists, themselves.]

JS: These pieces, to me, carry a message of establishing their artistic practice. Artists are constantly confronted with the great art of the past and particularly, if you are in Washington DC, you have the legacy of color-field painting which is so strong here. That is a wonderful thing but it is also a thing that artists might feel that they have to get past.

WC: There is a lot of color in the show this year. Color-field painters made beautiful color. That certainly comes into play.

JS: Yes. So, how do you pay homage to that legacy? But also, you have to sort of kill it, at the same time.

WC: There are only a few sculptures in the show this year. This one [Toym Imao, Reversed, Expanded, Exploded – POPed!] with the mask on the front and the piece that invites you to kiss through glass [Zachary Goldman, The Kissing Glass] are pieces from a tradition that I have seen more in the past. Is there anything you would like to share about your choices and how your choice of the more interactive art came about? Another piece I should mention is the flip book [Jennifer Jeanne Coster, I don’t understand Infinity]. It invites direct interaction.


Nara Park, It Was Written On the Wall. Photo Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.

JS: Right. A number of the pieces are meant to be interacted with, or at least experienced in the round.  This piece, too, is interactive. [Nara Park, It Was Written On the Wall] You can go inside and lie down.

WC: Ah Ha!

JS: I did not want to put anything on the wall here in front of it because when you are in there you just see a blank white wall when you look out. The feeling you get inside the structure is powerful, as if it has its own energy or kinetic field. The piece refers to monuments, memorials and tombs.

WC: Did the artist talk about work that came before? I remember in Washington in the 1970s, there were artists who were working with things like wood block, or pieces of wood, to create houses, to create memorials or objects that were to be viewed as enclosures. Is this part of that tradition or is this something that springs directly from that idea of memorials or tombs or crypts?

JS: I think it is part of that tradition but Nara comes from a slightly different perspective. She is from Seoul, Korea. She has a background looking at architecture and urban planning. She is making a comment on materials that are used in building. Each of these blocks is a paper box that she has folded and the covers are simulated to look like stone but they are very flimsy. They are not permanent materials. It becomes a comment on the quality of building materials in contemporary urban architecture. It also gets to the larger question of sculptural monuments and architectural monuments. Of course, D.C. is a city of monuments of granite and marble. So, she is bringing in a lot of different questions.

Alexander Peace. Jan Brueghel Flower Painting. Photo Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.

WC: This work by Alexander Peace [Jan Brueghel Flower Painting] and the painting on the opposite wall [Ali Miller, Closure], I saw first on the Internet [at Conner Contemporary Art’s web pages]. I wonder—looking at them in real life—obviously, they are much larger. Is there anything emblematic or special about this [Alexander Peace] vase? It is where I began formulating the idea about this show being about beauty—about things that are beautiful—an attempt to look for a way to find beauty, or resolution, or sublimity, in art.

Ali Miller. Closure. Photo Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.

JS: His title gives us a clue. He is exploring the still life paintings of Jan Brueghel, the Netherlandish painter, but he is taking them apart and making them his own. First, he is blowing them up in scale. But also, we have a very modernist breakdown of forms and layering of imagery. Alex did a series of these paintings in which he explored styles of different artists from the art historical canon. So, engaging with history, and certainly the ideas of beauty enter into that exchange. Adam Nelson’s sculpture [Adam Nelson, Alluvion] also evokes the beauty of organic forms, primarily those inspired by aquatic life, but, like Nara, he is examining the formal potential of commercial, synthetic materials, sculpting his works out of plastic.

Adam Nelson, Alluvion. Photo Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.


WC: While talking to you, I hear, also, that one of the things we are contemplating is how those who study art inherit a number of canons of the perception of beauty and that there is a responsibility, in a way, to be one’s own artist and yet to understand what came before you.

JS: Yes, and I think that there is a recognition of the role of beauty in art history but I think also there is a resistance to it. We are not getting it full on. It is being adjusted for us in specific ways. This piece by Toym Imao [Author’s Note: see Toym Imao interviewed in ECA by Eric Hope], sort of encapsulates his experience of coming to study in a contemporary art setting in the U.S. He came from Manila where he worked as a traditional sculptor doing public commissions. Then he comes to MICA and he is learning some very different concepts. It was a kind of trial by fire. He had to get up to speed on contemporary culture very quickly. He noticed that the names of famous artists were being thrown around constantly: “Jeff,” “Marina.” Who is “Cindy?” “Damian?” He turned to Wikipedia to fill himself in quickly. What he has done here is to start by painting a large portrait of Jeff Koons, who is a graduate of MICA and is still very involved with the college. His presence looms very large there. He created a sculptural effigy of Jeff Koons and stuffed it with shredded Wikipedia entries and then he exploded it. So that is what we are invited to view there. A video documented that explosion which created the image that we see before us here.

View the fireworks by clicking here

JS: Again, it is confronting larger-than-life legacies of art predecessors and wrestling with them to make something new out of them. To me, this is a really powerful image. It is also timely in that Leigh [Conner] and I are just back from Basel recently where there is a huge exhibition of Jeff Koons work at the Beyeler Foundation. It makes the work even more “of the moment.”

WC: I was going to ask, actually, whether or not your travels in the last six months, or so, including Basel, have affected how you select the work for the Academy show.

JS: I had already sent the invitations out because it takes a while to get all the materials from the artists, plus they all tend to go off traveling and visiting relatives during the summer. All of the selections had been made. I am sure that my experiences at different exhibitions or art fairs may have informed some of my receptivity to certain themes or certain methods of work. I cannot really point to anything specific.

WC: There is a beautiful circular canvas on the back wall [over the reception desk ledge]. There is a face. The face is obscured by a series of things, including kinds of agate, mineral shapes, and then very manmade objects, a kind of expanding machinery. Tell me more about this artist.

Jason Ressler. Solace in the Hyper-Sphere. Photo Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.

JS: This work [Solace in the Hyper-Sphere] is by Jason Ressler who is a very capable portraitist. Here he is pushing his art beyond straight portraiture. This is a portrait of an actual person. I believe it is a relative of his, but he placed, I think, an expandable plastic sphere on his head to obscure his identity a little. We get a sense of portraiture but then we get this denial of portraiture, at the same time. Visually, a lot of energy is released in this piece that we probably would not get from a regular portrait. My understanding from the artist is that the title refers to him taking solace in pushing his art in different directions.

WC: I really love the show this year.

JS: Oh, thank you. I am glad to hear that. I really enjoyed working with the artists, putting it together.

WC: Another word for beauty, I guess, for a person like me, is emotional access. I feel that there is a lot of access in this year’s selections. It is not hard to understand and feel the artist in the work that is depicted. It is not highly cerebral and distant. I do not feel a lot of barriers being thrown up against the wall to prevent the individual from finding out what’s going on right away.

JS: I agree. I think there is a lot of transparency between the artist and the audience. I think there is a great generosity in that openness.

WC: The work of microbes [Selin Balci, Contamination]. I am curious how much manipulation of the surface was by the artist and how much was left for nature to its thing. Do you have any sense from your conversations with the artist how manipulated these pieces are?

JS: I don’t know exactly how she interacted with the surfaces of what we are seeing. My sense is less than more. This is an excerpt from her entire master’s thesis show.

WC: I wonder if the work was done on much larger planes and then cut or whether each piece was done individually as a separate square to begin with. For me, this piece made me want to think about my entire experience. I came in and I saw the piece in the front by Nara Park and was moving around and then I came to this one and it takes a lot not to be drawn away from this exhibition and into thinking about the people who worked with the earth in monumental ways. This moves into a microbial world the same kind of earthwork done in the 1970s that was so important to me.

JS: In Selin’s work, her organic materials relate to that tradition. But I think that she is also asking what our place in that environment is. She often collects samples from individuals by swabbing the inside of someone’s mouth. Then she creates cultures from the samples. They are almost like portraits, as well. It reflects the microcosm of us, our bodies, individuality, plus the macrocosm of science and nature, all wrapped up into one. I think it is just gorgeous how she arranges the panels.

WC: And then, System I: A to B to A [by Misha Capecchi], one of the video works, has a connection. It takes you a moment to figure out why there are two screens. Once I figured it out, I was rapt. I realized how specific the title was. As I sat and realized what the artist was doing, I started watching for every detail from A to B and then back from B to A, thinking about all the things that go into a set camera—gravity, movement, the action of workers carrying the box from A to B and back. It goes back to my thinking about the earth, about the relationship the artists have to the earth and how, maybe, that is part of what color-field painting was all about, but also a different and vibrant trend in art to talk about the artist’s relationship to the earth.

JS: I believe that she filmed the left channel in a quarry. It is an indeterminate location. It could be just about anywhere. She has done a series of works where she is working with the idea of the Skinner Box, the behavioral conditioning instrument. She shows herself on the right side inside of the Skinner Box. She has blocked what we would think of as normal sensory access. She cannot see; she is limited in what she can feel; she is in a confined space. She is being given objects to interact with. It is a metaphor for communication. It is a futuristic and somewhat disturbing proposal for a lack of communication among human beings in the future, and also a lack of communication with our environment.

WC: A lack of access and a kind of blind touch as the only way to understand what is going on.

JS: The other video, by Pablo Garcia Lopez [Where the Wild Tulips Grow], deals with the brain—structures of the brain and models of the brain which in science in the past several decades have been very mechanistic. He has a background in neuropsychology and he is pushing aside the mechanistic metaphors for the function of the brain toward a more organic look at the brain’s structure. He makes sculptural installations that are based on the formations in the human brain using raw silk as his medium and then he introduces dyes so that we can see the full design, the architecture of the sculpture becomes apparent.

WC: How different areas of the brain may be used, or clouded, or grow or shrink, or become more important, or even black out. I was really curious to find out what was being used. You see it is, again, so beautiful, so complex, and disturbing at the same time. You worry about what you are seeing because it is so organic. I didn’t get so far as to think of living or dying, it was just going through changes. It is disturbing when you don’t know exactly what you are looking at. But, again, it is beautiful. That is what I keep saying. I just see so much beauty around me in this show.

Ben Tolman. Suburbs. Photo Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.

WC: The very large pen and ink drawing that is in front of me here [Ben Tolman, Suburbs], is interesting but I don’t know what to say about it. You should tell me a little bit more about what the artist has to say.

JS: This is Ben Tolman’s drawing. He is showing us a repetition of form in suburban life. When we start looking closely, we see a lot of variation, but at first glance, it just looks like this huge sprawling system that is never going to end.

WC: I wondered whether that was, maybe, one of the things the artist is inviting the viewer to do. That is, to see, almost like a puzzle, where there are changes in the form, in the repetition of the little house form, and what that might mean. Is there a lesson that the individual should derive? Is there a moral to the story? That is what I don’t know.

JS: I do not know if there is one fixed conclusion that the artist wants us to draw, or has drawn for himself, but I think that the imagery is so rich that it avails itself of many possible narratives. Once we start looking at all the details, we see tiny figures and we can imagine their interactions in this community.

WC: And, a little bit of mystery, not a lot. I think that a work like this could easily have been suffused with a lot more mystery.

JS: Any time we see the exterior of a house, we often wonder what goes on inside of that dwelling. I think Jennifer Coster’s work [Jennifer Jeanne Coster, I don’t understand Infinity] can have a nice conversation with these themes.

WC: There is a kind of infinity in the way the suburban scene is created, and then with this [by Coster], of course, the user has a chance to come up and look through the flip book. You see a continuing movement, over and over, an infinite cycle, moving closer to, in this case, the image of the Land O’Lakes American Indian maiden, from Minnesota, at the center [a reference to the packaging art’s “Droste Effect,”].

JS: Yes, and here [Jennifer Jeanne Coster, Peculiar Traces of Empire no. 6], she also is looking at the repetition of form in suburban planning, or lack thereof, you could say. These come from grass strips planted in parking lots in between rows of parking areas.

WC: And then, to this arch [Jennifer Jeanne Coster, Peculiar Traces of Empire no. 3]. Is this, for you, a movement from one thing to another, from youth to age, or from underground to above-ground? Is there anything in what the artist has said about the way the work changes from one side to the other in color and in mass?

JS: I think it can be read in a number of different ways, but what I find most interesting is the transition from light to dark.

WC: I felt gravity at work. It seemed to me that the artist was saying that, as a function of the built environment, gravity has a huge effect on what the final product is, after it matures. It becomes denser because of gravity, because of the pull of the earth—earth, again.


Camden Place. Its the World that Seems to have a Problem with Me. Photo Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.

WC: I stood and listened to this artist’s video [Camden Place, Its the World that Seems to have a Problem with Me].  I enjoyed this, and I am interested in hearing from you where he fits in. Was he selected as a part of a continuum or just on the basis of the quality of the work that he has been doing?

JS: This piece has a very performative quality that it shares with some of the interactive sculptures in the show. It is very much about the construction of identity. He is drawing upon lines from popular movies that give a certain idea of masculine identity. He is creating this false persona, so we cannot really take it at face value.

WC: No, we can’t. I was able to gather very early that this was a character or a depiction of a personality, and not just a confessional.

JS: I was drawn to the performative nature of it and also the questioning or peeling away of gender stereotypes. [Turning right to view the next works] Aaron’s photographs are dealing with identity in a different way. [Aaron Canipe, J.V. Ozmint’s Confederate Calvary Saber, near Iva, South Carolina and Near Cat Square, North Carolina and Great-Grandma at Thanksgiving, near Hickory, North Carolina] This series of photographs has a sense of his origin in the South. He grew up in North Carolina. In it, he shows how the distance, coming to study in Washington, gave him a distance to begin to appreciate and unravel some of the stories of his roots.

WC: Did you make any conscious decisions about limiting the number of photographers in this year’s show, or is it just a question of choice of the best work?

JS: No, I didn’t make a decision to limit and I don’t usually select works based on the medium. I like to see artists working with different materials or in different types of practice.

WC: But you do create a relationship with an artist over the course of the year, when you go to different student shows and thesis shows and things like that. You have a chance to see the work of a number of artists who are students. If I am correct, it is not always the work that you’ve seen in that show that ends up in Academy 2012, but it may be a gateway for you. Were these something you saw in a show or something that came about after you got to know the artist?

JS: I saw these pieces in NEXT at the Corcoran, the student show this spring at the Corcoran Gallery. The Corcoran has a very strong photography program, so it is not surprising to see strong photography-based work coming of that school.

WC: As we continue to walk, we come to another work that is interactive, which I mentioned earlier. [Zachary Goldman, The Kissing Glass] It clearly is a playful invitation to interact that is not, at first, very threatening at all. In fact, as you begin to think about what you are asked to do, it becomes a little more disturbing. Do you have any sense of how much there was an intention by the artist to have the viewer go through that progression of thought, from fun to disturbing?

JS: In his artist statement, Zachary gives the history of how this work developed for him personally. It was after a break-up and it expressed his desire for intimacy that wasn’t being met at that time. He created the piece and he invited people to interact with it. He said that he was really surprised at how willing people were—because the glass was there—to do something that they would not do ordinarily. The glass is a barrier but it is also bringing people together in a way that they would not normally come together. The squeegee, the Windex and the paper towels represent this clean slate that, for any relationship, would be ideal.

Britt Law. Distinct Anatomies. Photo Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.

WC: It is also about safety. That is the disturbing part that, in a sense, there’s a release—an ability to be more uninhibited—when there is a sense of safety present, just as you have said. Now, with this artist [turning to the work of Britt Law], we are talking about an artist who does work with ink. I remember this from the [Conner Contemporary] website because it made such an impression on me. There is a naivety about it in the way that it is drawn but also a great depth of emotion. It sits apart, in a dramatic way, from this pair of drawings by Josh Chance [Emerge and Incipient], which exhibit masterful draftsmanship, work that is not naïve. In a way, it has a more obscure emotional message. Are they together on this wall because of that? Is there any invitation to the viewer to see the differences between the two?

JS: Yes, definitely. There is a contrast in style between Josh’s and Britt’s works. But also, there are some underlying thematic connections. There is an idea of growth and decay, growth and death. They come across in different ways, you know, the rich patterning, the organic imagery, the idea of overwhelming systems, that are encircling and encasing the figures [in Captivity], I find very interesting.

WC: And trying, I guess, to find protection. Certainly, the drawing of a little white picket fence around the central pair of characters is something that is very loving and intimate.

JS: Yes, and, to me, art historically, it reminds me of the Enclosed Garden where you see the Virgin and Child.

[See Hortus Conclusus]

Heather Stratton. Getting Ready to Walk into the Storm. Photo Courtesy Conner Contemporary Art.

WC: That’s right, and even the perspective seems to recall that period. And in the middle, between these two things, is a very inviting short video. [Heather Stratton, A Safe Place for Unsafe Thoughts] I was pleased to see it first in still, on the [Conner Contemporary] website. Now that I see it in motion, it is really interesting. We see a pair of feet, a woman drawing a circle of salt, then stepping inside. That is a very old image. I remember, even as a child, the idea that a drawn circle creates protection against evil spirits, ghosts, or malefactors that can walk the face of the earth even though they are not in human form. I see this pair of demure shoes and legs with a traditional skirt moving into the circle and moving out in a very practiced and regular, unemotional way. It seems that the shoes move in and out of the circle with ease.

JS: I agree; the action in the video seems ritualistic. I think, in one way or another, all the pieces on this wall are dealing with creative responses to certain anxieties which are part of life.  This theme resonates with the oil paintings by Ali Miller in the front gallery, which allegorize personal interior states with the artist’s own visual language. [Ali Miller, Closure]

WC: I am feeling a certain range of age or experience in the artists in this show. There is a sense that people are coming from different ranges of experience.

JS: Some just received their BFAs and some have just received their MFAs.

WC: It can be misleading. At first, I looked around and thought that this or that work was from a younger artist or an older artist. Then I had to think twice about whether I really saw that or not. I will be talking to Wes Clark later, about his larger body of work. He came back to academia after being out there as an artist for a while. Therefore, I am especially interested in this work. [Wesley Clark, Altered] It is a triptych with a very urban interior. In his work for you, did he talk about what happened on the street for him, that he has taken back into the academy to use to change how he is doing his work, or to simply become more specialized as a fine artist?

JS: Wesley and I have not discussed changes in his work over time. We did discuss what is behind the body of work that he presented in his thesis show. It was the only thesis show at GW this spring and I was delighted at how wonderful it was. To put it very simply, I think that he is interested in how he can create objects that lend themselves to different stories that show a history, in and of themselves. They also make us wonder, how did this come to be this way? How did this come to look this way? Who might have interacted with this to make what we see before us?” He makes us wonder if this is the work of one hand, or not. It is a surprise when we see the austere, rough exterior with the Old Testament patriarch names carved in them. Then, we come around and we are right back in an urban environment. He also did the piece in the front window, the broken target [Wesley Clark, Four Five Six].

WC: Which is beautiful—another thing [in the show] that is a work of beauty, in and of itself.

JS: But also leading us to wonder what happened to this thing. Was it mistreated? Was it used so much that it fell apart?

WC: And what is the amendment? I am saying the same thing over again but I think about the amendment, about what an artist does to amend an object, a piece of sculpture. In the front window, it’s a target. I am not sure if there was any conscious desire to echo color-field painters or echo the work of Jasper Johns or any of the other artists who were working with targets back then, but it is there, for me.

JS: Yes, it certainly called those artists to mind, Ken Noland, Jasper Johns, the idea of confronting the traditions of the past, but also making your own narrative. In his artist’s statement, gives a story: perhaps a group of teenagers could have used it for target practice and that is why the paint is peeling off and that is why it is broken. It is an interesting take on the history of art. Where are we now? Is the work of the past our target?

[See what the artist has to say about the target image in his ECA interview with Wade Carey.]

WC: And, in this case, with this artist, the work of aging. What happens if you age?

JS: We should look again at the work of the installation in the courtyard.

WC: Yes, we were out a few minutes ago looking at the installation there. [Elliot Bryant, The Curse of the Pop Mirage!]

JS: This is the work of Elliot Bryant from the Corcoran College. He worked in the heat for days putting this installation in.

WC: What a guy!

JS: Yes! He deserves a lot of credit.

WC: It is a beautiful installation, a great use of the courtyard.

JS: It is perfectly sited. Elliot really did a great job placing the installment. It has a whimsical fantasy feel about it, which I think is great for a summer show. You know, reaching toward the mirage of the palm trees.

WC: And a treasure chest.

JS: Yes, exactly, everything that all of us dream about!

WC: It really is a desert island wonder.

JS: Yes.

WC: I think everyone should come out and spend some time with it. The weather is supposed to be beautiful next week [following the opening of the Academy 2012 show].