Hunters and collectors

Pub date August 19, 2008
WriterGlen Helfand
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

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REVIEW It wasn’t so long ago that the term "curated" moved from dusty archive territory to popular lexicon. When did curated databases, boutique merchandise, and Netflix queues become commonplace? In the Bay Area, more than one school offers a master’s degree in "curatorial practice" — but who has a concise description of what that really means? The term has become elastic, perhaps because there’s too much material — of all sorts — to deal with in contemporary culture. Someone’s gotta figure out how to marshal and present it coherently.

Two current high-concept group exhibitions are equally about their curatorial premises and respective curators — Henry Urbach and Jens Hoffman — as the objects on display. Both have extended titles — "246 and Counting: Recent Architecture + Design Acquisitions" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and "Passengers" and "The Exhibition Formerly … ," at the Wattis Institute at California College of the Arts — and will evolve during their runs into 2009. Both are activated by transparent systems that generate their form.

"246 and Counting" includes every object Urbach, SFMOMA’s Helen Hilton Raiser curator of architecture and design, acquired during his first two years at the museum. In the wall label, he admits the show "aims to focus our attention on collection building." It’s not a stretch to say it has something to do with shopping: Urbach, who previously ran a commercial gallery in Chelsea, NYC, admits as much in the audio guide: "To shop well is half my job" (the other is to experiment with "curatorial practice"). And the presentation will grow to include each new piece he buys before "246" closes. The exhibition itself is a surprisingly refreshing take on the "collection show," the homely, hometown sibling to the bigger traveling exhibit.

Playing out on low platforms and arranged chronologically based on the date the works were purchased or given, "246"<0x2009>‘s structured format ironically allows for a degree of irreverence. Urbach leans framed photographs by Richard Barnes against the wall, stacks 1986 Beosystem stereo equipment, and splays silkscreen posters by the beloved activist nun, Sister Corita, on the floor under transparent Plexiglas boxes. It’s the same means used to showcase an iPhone, a donation from Apple, credited to Jonathan Ive. The fact that many of us have one makes for an automatic entry point.

The objects are identified on laminated cards, so the display initially resembles a high-end vintage store or the apartment of an aesthete/design guru — the format affords an approachable sense of personality. Urbach’s gesture is one of exposure — of the museum’s hierarchy and of his own sensibility. He uses this to assert a curatorial identity, and the narrowed focus makes for satisfying, authored viewing. If there’s an inclusion you question, you know who’s to blame.

The former director of exhibitions at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Hoffman — who just completed his first year of programming at Wattis — expresses a similar tastemaker sensibility. The contemporary art has a more experimental vibe because the gallery doesn’t collect. It feels as if Hoffman selected his picks from international art fairs. As noted on the Wattis Web site, "Passengers" is a "constantly transforming exhibition of emerging international contemporary artists, none of whom have ever had a solo presentation in an American public art institution." It’s structured around 12 artists: 11 with a few pieces, and one with a somewhat larger presentation, in a literal white cube space, before the latter artist leaves the show and another from the 11 remaining cycles into the bigger box.

The eclectic range of works — by artists familiar to Frieze readers but who will probably turn up in biennials down the line — tend to be funky and/or conceptual in bent and include Annette Kelm’s serial photos of a woven baseball cap; Valérie Mréjen’s short films about enacting various identities; and Federico Herrero’s painting project (though Aug. 30), which also involves a mural on a Potrero Hill home.

On Sept. 2 the show morphs into "The Exhibition Formerly Known as Passengers" — coincidentally with a showcase of works by San Francisco artist Tauba Auerbach, whose Alphabetized Bible (2006) is included, in editioned form, in "246" and "Passengers." The exhibition’s form will shift as well: after each solo presentation, the artist will leave the show, but none will be added. The final artist, Aurelien Froment, gets the entire space in August 2009. This may not be fair to the previous "Passengers," but it does make for a tidy denouement.

Like "246," the "Passengers" structure is perhaps more memorable than any of its works, making both meta-projects: shows about the act of making shows. It’s fitting, then, that Hoffman’s title salutes Prince, who has constantly reinvented himself, the structures of music distribution, and performance platforms. The musical artist has had his share of misfire projects, but you always know he’s going to come up with some convincing new challenge to cultural consumption. *


Through Jan. 4, 2009

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

For hours and prices go to


Through Aug. 30

"The Exhibition Formerly Known as Passengers" runs Sept. 2–Aug. 29, 2009

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

1111 Eighth St., SF

For hours go to