The crew is unpacking the crates for the Anne Chu and Matthew Monahan show, Mineral Spirits (Matthew’s sculpture “Roots For Ryan” is pictured above). Music drifts in from the back room, packing blankets are spread on the floor: rust, pink, maroon and black. Robert is making notes for the condition reports and taking pictures with his digital camera. “Hey Robert,” says Jenelle, the show’s curator, “remember when I started here and it was all Polaroids?”
Some things about installing a show change, but the important things don’t. Carefulness is always the watchword here. Carefully Casey unscrews the top of a crate, and carefully she takes the lid off. Underneath are layers of cardboard, layers of wood, layers of styrofoam, bundles of plastic sheeting and bubblewrap. One by one she lifts them out, and only then do we see what’s in there: something wooden, brown and pale, chunky and lovely—like a block of cheese that someone impatient has taken a knife to. Jenelle walks over to take a closer look. “It’s like Christmas morning every time you unwrap a show,” she says.
This show, Mineral Spirits, has been living in Jenelle’s head for years. She knew Anne Chu’s sculpture first, and then she saw Matthew Monahan’s at an exhibition in L.A., and it just came to her: how cool their work would look in a room together! Both artists work with the human figure, both disassemble and reassemble it to make it their own, both share a range of influences. It made sense to Jenelle in her head, but the idea didn’t come from there. It came from somewhere else, from what I think of as the curator’s instinct.
Most people who walk through an exhibition never think about the curator at all, but her hand is everywhere. In the works she chooses and how she organizes them, she affects how we understand the art we’re looking at. More than that, she influences how we experience it, as light influences the way we experience a landscape. If the curator’s vision is cloudy, the art looks dull, dimmed, flat. But if her vision is clear, we see the works before us with an acuity and a brightness that makes them glow with vibrant life.
A good curator needs a lot of things: a good eye, a knowledge of art history, a way with artists, the gift of contagious excitement; but maybe this mysterious quality—this instinctive sense of what would be interesting—is the thing she needs most. Maybe the best shows grow out of the kind of moment Jenelle describes: from a hunch, an impulse, an inspired guess.