By KURT MCVEY, AUG. 2017
Emma Frank, the young gallery manager at Broome Street’s Castor Gallery, remains delightfully tight-lipped about the specifics regarding the somewhat melancholic personal experiences that influenced the tone of her first and very tastefully curated group show in the space, Strangers. This can be frustrating for nosey art writers who like to fashion themselves as unlicensed pseudo therapists, but good news for art fans who don’t exactly enjoy being spoon-fed emotions as viewing prerequisites. The exhibition, which will stand until August 19th, features the work of Mercedes Helnwein, Jesse Draxler, Krista Louise Smith, Juan Miguel Palacios, and Anthony Goicolea.
On the surface, it’s obvious that each artist is playing with positive and negative space as a metaphor for our intrinsic duality and how these polarities influence personal identity and social performance. Spend some time with the work, especially accompanied by Ms. Frank, who nimbly shifts between Alice and the White Rabbit, and it’s clear the thematic hole goes deeper still. Strangers is a confident and playfully mysterious curatorial debut from Ms. Frank, who came on at Castor in January this year, but has now irrevocably established herself as an undisputed curatorial asset. Her own influences for the show, outside of the understandably vague personal hints, pull from a vast and impressive treasure trove of art, film, music, and literary references. Though Ms. Frank admits and even at times apologizes for the show’s darker or perhaps colder visual and existential elements-which make it a bit of an anomaly in August-Strangers is a thoughtful and welcomed respite from the myriad of group shows operating as light-hearted vacation buffers for collectors and gallery owners.
Ms. Frank was kind enough to share some curatorial clues with Whitehot Magazine as to what went into her admirable authoritative debut at the Lower East Side gallery space.
Kurt McVey: What do you think about this masquerade element? Is that too literal?
Emma Frank: I think it works in terms of the subjects of the show being enigmas engaged in some sort of social event, much like a masquerade. I hate to immediately tell strangers what a work of art means emotionally, but rather tell them what I know to be true of technical elements; every work of art wears a mask. They take many forms: orange splotches of oil pastel (Mercedes Helnwein), a face replaced with a black void (Jesse Draxler), or the complete absence of the head in the frame altogether (Krista Louise Smith).
On the other hand, to suggest that all these “beings” in the show are human to begin with, that I possess the free will to make the assumption that they could interact, or that they could take on different roles-almost like a clique-would be wild. I did consider that when you mentioned it; the work “Tiffany” by Mercedes Helnwein, taking on a sovereign role, or the triptych from Jesse looking like a family the way they seem to reject each other when placed side by side…so on and so forth.
McVey: Despite being a group show, what do you think about the idea of Strangers "not feeling like a summer show?"
Frank: I understand it and I value the feedback from my co-workers who obviously have much greater experience in curating contemporary art. I wanted to push the boundaries of an ordinary summer show, but I needed checks and balances to acknowledge logistic limitations. It’s a valid point that something more uplifting would complement the attitude of a Hamptons-going New Yorker…or sell more easily. Ultimately, following market trends and better learning what will sell is necessary for gallerists for one simple fact: it’s a business.
Albert Camus actually says, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” What that means in existential terms is that the seasons are arbitrary. It’s no secret that Holidays are social constructions. Life is absurd and constantly reminding us of its absurdity, even in the way that I’m responding now. My point: you can’t escape facing existence or accepting the will to choose, no matter what season it is.
McVey: This is your first full curatorial effort at Castor Gallery-was there a message or emotion you were trying to convey through or with these artists and do you feel as though you achieved it?
Frank: Although I circulated many ideas about existence, I would have to say that “ego” is central to the theme, specifically the distinction between “self” versus “the other,” which was originally popularized by Carl Jung. In other words, helping other people understand how I feel and wanting to empathize with their identities. I admit I’ve been lamenting, so anguish or discomfort was an emotion I wanted to bleed. Melancholy can be so beautiful.
I definitely feel like it was successful in provoking that type of thought. Juan’s work, for example, is so emotionally compelling and sort of stuns you in a sense, and then you realize the figure depicted is crying out in misery. The sizes, colors, and way they look together came out exactly as I intended.
McVey: How did the various artists shift your own perspective on the exhibition you were creating?
Frank: I allowed many of the influences that the artists referenced in their own work to shape the outcome. Juan was inspired by the human condition and its spectrum of emotions, so I started reading relevant books. Originally when I found Mercedes, I saw a couple short films she made that were very “film noir” with nurses and cops, so I started going to the independent movie theaters more. I knew Jesse was influenced by music. In Spades (2017, Sub Pop) by the Afghan Whigs came out in the midst of me working on this, so I let that affect me. There was a part of me that wanted to please them because I’ve been an artist. I’m told that will fade because artists are difficult.
McVey: What's it like further developing a relationship with artists when the title of the show is Strangers?
Frank: Odd, but gratifying. I did extensive research, so I felt weird knowing so much about them when we didn’t actually know each other personally. I discovered we were alike in many ways. I did studio visits with all the artists and spoke to them briefly, then corresponded over email. After that, I had a sense of belonging to all of them, which grew upon doing more research, as well as physically handling the work as much as I did.
I find it ironic because I do feel like I got to know the artists through their work- especially Jesse because I came across him years ago. I also got into a really enlightening conversation with Krista Louise upon meeting her. She made me completely reevaluate my femininity because of the energy her work radiates. The artists trusted me as a stranger to present the art, so it works both ways.
McVey: When did the title come along, early or late?
Frank: Early on, right after the second artist was confirmed. It was brought on by a studio visit with Mercedes because some of her work reminded me of the film The Strangers (2008), then I connected it to L’Etranger by Camus and couldn’t get it out of my head.
McVey: How much of NYC is in this title?
Frank: It wasn’t my first thought, but it’s certainly a component. I’ve only been here a year and a half, so I’m still frustrated with the quality of relationships in the city. Every day when I look around at strangers’ faces, I imagine their stories. I saw someone crying hysterically in the subway today and I did absolutely nothing other than make a mental note that she was upset. For me, solitude or remaining a stranger to those around me is necessary, even romanticized. In part, that’s my “sense of self” or assigned personality, but it’s amplified by city life.
McVey: You like Camus, tell me more about these French nihilists and how they inspired you. Also, are you a nihilist or is that impossible if you're in the art world?
Frank: I’m not completely nihilist. If I were, it wouldn’t matter. Would it? I don’t discredit the intrinsic meaning of art. At the same time, I recognize that it’s assigned meaning by society. I went to Catholic school, which is where I originally started studying French early on. In college I started out as a double major in Biology and French Literature, then switched to art/design my junior year. I rejected God by the beginning of high school; my science studies brought that on. One of the first authors I fell in love with was Baudelaire, because he was more romantic. Next came Camus, Sartre, and others. I wouldn’t say that I think life is completely meaningless, but I’m extremely skeptical. I still have hope for success and love. Bottom line: we have a choice to believe or not believe.
McVey: With a title like Strangers, did you notice anything mysterious take place at the opening?
Frank: I noticed so many different types of people; some I had seen before. Others were perfect strangers. I considered everyone’s intention of gathering. I wondered who was there to socialize, see the art, or get drunk. Nothing in particular struck me as odd. The whole notion of it being a masquerade inside of a masquerade is fascinating, though.
McVey: Who are the owners and what advice or directives did they give you?
Frank: Sean [Nicholas] is the owner. Justin [deDemko] is a partner/director. I made several artists lists in the past few months, which Justin gave me feedback on. I selected the works and ran them by both Sean and Justin. A friend of mine proofread the press release, as well as Justin and a local artist, Royal, helped with the install. I had a plan for where I wanted things to go written on a napkin. I made the decisions and they were extremely supportive in making sure I had all the resources to get it done. I’m lucky. After the NY Times article came out about all the mid-size gallery closures, I felt even more grateful that they gave me an opportunity to put on a show that’s true to me. We’re all really proud of it. WM
Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.
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