Her Air

Miranda: Jenelle headshot 2

Photo: Aaron Igler

Today is the first day at ICA without Jenelle. After six years as a curator here, Jenelle Porter has moved on to a senior curator position at another ICA— ICA Boston. It’s funny, because we made T-shirts just last October saying: “My ICA Is Better Than Your ICA!” But along with the jokey competition there’s a wonderful sense that the whole world is made up of ICAs, like islands in a contemporary art archipelago, and that a person could step from one of them to another for a whole long, various career.

When I got to ICA in fall 2009, Jenelle’s Dance with Camera show was just going up. The first thing you saw as you entered the semi-dark space was a series of large Kelly Nipper photographs of a dancer with her arms curved above her head. Half concealed behind a latticed screen, the dancer’s form is broken into pixel-like bits, seeming to invite the viewer to see how the dancer and the dance are changed—hidden and revealed—by the processes of setting up and taking the photograph. Step further into the darkness: the hallways and open spaces and enclosed rooms filled with light and shadows. Enormous images loom, flickering on the walls, while intimate ones unspool just for you on monitors, some serious and intense, others funny, some enacted by professional dancers and others by playful amateurs. The hand of the curator, as always, is both invisible and everywhere. Most people seeing the show don’t think about her, don’t know her name, but the experience they have and the ideas that spring into their heads as they walk through the rooms are shaped by her vision, her excitement, her education, and her hard work. The air in the room is her air.
Miranda: Jenelle installing Donnelly 4

Jenelle installing. Photo: Conny Purtill

Though visitors down in the galleries might not be quite aware of Jenelle’s presence, upstairs in the offices you always knew when she was around. Opinionated and outspoken, with a confident speaking voice and a loud, frequent laugh, it was no secret when Jenelle liked something, when she didn’t like something, and when she thought it was time for a meeting to be over. At Jenelle’s last staff meeting, ICA director Claudia Gould reviewed her career at ICA, asking about the show she was most proud of (Dance with Camera); the hardest show (Trisha Donnelly —“It was as great to do as it was challenging, we installed one wall of work for two weeks!”); the most surprisingly successful show (Locally Localized Gravity). In addition, Jenelle coordinated ICA publications, worked with her husband Conny Purtill to redesign ICA’s lobby and signage, served on the museum’s strategic planning committee, and on the search committee for the Department of the History of Art’s new contemporary art professor, Kaja Silverman. Claudia said, “You contributed exactly what I hoped. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

What I’ll remember most about Jenelle is her attitude that things are doable, that the fact that something is hard is no reason not to go ahead: ambitious exhibitions, long curatorial essays, and smaller things too. That first fall I told her I wanted to go to some of the evening screenings that were part of Dance with Camera, but that I couldn’t because I had to get home to my kids. “Just bring them!” she said. I didn’t, which I still regret. The next spring, after lending me Anne Truitt’s fabulous memoir of an artist’s life, Daybook, she told me Truitt was having a (posthumous) show in New York and that I should go see it. Again I said I couldn’t: New York was too far, I had family responsibilities. “It’s not that far!” she said. “Just go!” So I went. I’ll never forget that exhibition, the vibrant stillness of those tall simple sculptures, the feeling of them so unlike what I had guessed from the photographs. Thanks, Jenelle, for that.

One day last year, Jenelle mentioned to me that she’d been to a presentation of curators reading their manifestos. She didn’t have a manifesto, but she was going home to write one. Last week I asked her if she would share it with me, and with her permission I’m passing on a few highlights here:

• Encourage false constructs and arranged marriages

• Prod artists to get outside their own head/aesthetic/mannerisms

• Say yes until you absolutely have to say no

• Mentor your audience

• Make good design

• Be timely, but lead with your gut

• Fail better

• Don’t take art too seriously, but believe that art can change the world

Good luck on your new island, Jenelle! We’ll think of you on your new part of the archipelago, encouraging, prodding, mentoring, laughing, leading with your gut, and helping art change the world.

Just because Jenelle Porter is moving to Boston doesn’t mean you’ve lost your chance to see her exhibitions in Philadelphia. She will be back in March to install Sheila Hicks: 50 Years, an extraordinary exhibition of one of the world’s foremost fiber artists (organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art), and she is continuing to work on her Charline Von Heyl exhibition, which will open at ICA next fall.