In Conversation with Kevin Moore
March 1 – May 1, 2014
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
By TESSA MAFFUCCI, MAY 2014
Kevin Moore recently curated Panopticum at Robert Miller Gallery, a diverse and unpredictable exhibition aimed at recontextualizing vintage photography amidst works in various media.
This exhibition was developed around a series of photographs taken by Herbert List in 1944 in a decrepit chamber of horrors in Vienna, just before it was demolished. The attraction featured wax sculptures of classically beautiful women sliced in profile to display an anatomical view, unsettlingly calm subjects of bizarre surgeries, and mustachioed Austrian nobility. One photograph of these wax figures, carefully dodged by List himself, depicts the ghostly face of a count emerging from emptiness, the blank space meant to house the title words of a book that was never produced.
The artists summoned for this exhibition form a disparate and curious group. Across the gallery from List's pristine black and white photographs, Moore has placed a large-scale Cindy Sherman print portraying a tangled mess of hair and flesh. Nearby, an iPad plays Tricia Lawless Murray's L'Autoportrait (2009), on repeat. Lawless Murray imagines herself in the role of the objectified woman, referencing Surrealism's anti-feminist reputation and Magritte's I Do Not See the [Woman] Hidden in the Forest (1929). On an adjoining wall, one of Taryn Simon's photographs from An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar shows the operating room, and subject, of a hymenoplasty.
At the front of the gallery, Moore has selected a piece by Robert Beck constructed with mortician's wax. Usually used for cosmetic reconstruction on badly disfigured cadavers, Beck (he later changed his artistic signature to Robert Buck) instead filled a bucket with the substance, shot it at close range with a 12 gauge, and then extracted the demi-solid material, intact, from the bucket.
At the back of the gallery, one enters Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe's dystopic installation through a wound-like hole chipped into the drywall, separating their immersive, post-apocalyptic experience from the rest of the gallery. The pair utilized the contents of an abandoned drugstore, along with many of their own creations, to construct a space that is at once nostalgic and foreboding.
Working with a variety of artistic approaches, Moore has delicately drawn together our modern obsessions with decadence, surrealism, science gone wrong, and ghastly spectacle.
Maffucci: You have a Ph.D. in art history and a background working with museums and large institutions. How is it different to curate in a gallery setting? What is your methodology in putting together an exhibition like Panopticum?
Moore: Museum shows can be gratifying for offering something that feels authoritative, conclusive, but I love doing gallery shows because they are quick and intuitive and offer something much more questioning, open-ended. As curator of a gallery show you behave more like an artist, making connections, illuminating new ideas, opening things up for scrutiny. It's less defined and more alive for that reason, I believe. As for methodology, it's a fast and furious brainstorm and then boom! it's up.
Maffucci: Why are the themes of this exhibition interesting to you right now?
Moore: I'm always trying to put together art with a more general cultural vibe and in this case I had been puzzling over why there is so much morbidity in the culture now, on TV shows about vampires and morticians, for example. Those Herbert List photographs--surreal pictures of an outmoded Viennese wax museum, a real chamber of horrors, much of it medical, scientific--felt to me like the 1940s version of what we're feeling today. So it interests me that civilization goes through these phases periodically--phases of radical social, technological, economic change which can be anxiety producing in a mass-culture way. I always think as a historian that it's instructive to recognize that A) historically, we've been there before, and B) it isn't the same each time because the specifics of the historical moment are different in every case. Same but different. It's instructive and curious at the same time. I also think that fear is a delightful or pleasurable emotion and a common response to uncertainty. I thought this show would delight people as well as horrify them.
Maffucci: How do you see photography, and specifically vintage photography, fitting into the larger context of art collecting and the art world in general?
Moore: Vintage photography, or modernist photography, had a sort of heyday as both a subject of study and as an art market commodity but it's sheen seems to be dulling a bit lately, due in part I think to a sort of letting-go of nostalgia for that period (generally, the 20th century) and, more practically speaking perhaps, an increasing scarcity of really great vintage prints on the market. But I've always seen photography as integral to the modern period and have felt that it shouldn't be ghettoized or kept separate from contemporary art discourse and art in other mediums. That's why a show such as Panopticum feels so exciting: it demonstrates, I hope, the relevance of vintage photography to contemporary art. The List photographs are some of the most compelling works in the show and that's saying a lot because they are, after all, just little black-and-white pictures, competing against great things like Cindy Sherman and the abject and elaborate Freeman & Lowe installation.
Maffucci: What do you hope a visitor would take away from this exhibition?
Moore: I want people to think about art in relation to the world we're living in, to make random and unexpected associations, to perhaps remember things they haven't thought about for a very long time. In formulating the show, I remembered how interested I once was (the whole culture was) in Bigfoot and that's why I wanted to include that TV video [A & E Ancient Mysteries, narrated by Leonard Nimoy) in the show!
Maffucci: For Paris Photo Los Angeles you have curated a video selection titled Sound and Vision -- The Screenings. What should we know about this project?
Moore: Paris Photo has been trying to integrate photography into the larger art world for some time and they decided that for this year's Los Angeles edition they wanted to expand the definition of photography to include the moving image, which is especially relevant in LA. In making the film selection, I tried to choose films that either engaged issues or motifs common in art photography (tensions between documentary and fictionalized modes, the still and moving image, film and digital formats, etc) or addressed art photography more explicitly as a subject: Moyra Davey's film Les Goddesses, for example, is largely autobiographical, about her life as an artist and photographer, and uses photographs as illustrations throughout; Slater Bradley's film Sequoia is a sort of triple-homage to Hitchcock, a past love, and Chris Marker's film La Jetée (1962), which was of course a film composed almost entirely of stills. Again, the relationship between film and photography has always been strong but this terrain seems to have been rarely explored. I hope it stimulates new historical connections for people and delights them along the way.
Tessa is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She earned her BA from the Gallatin School at New York University and has furthered her studies at Columbia University and the International Center for Photography.view all articles from this author