Uniforms for Non-Uniform Work

Excerpts from a Curatorial Sartorial #3

Jeanie Riddle

Jeanie Riddle lives and works in Montreal, QC with her daughter. She holds an MFA from Concordia University (2005). Trained in painting, Riddle has been developing a sculptural installation practice rooted in the techniques and ideals of modernist painting since 2002. Her installation work has been presented across Canada at à Optica (Montreal), Centre des arts actuels SKOL, YYZ (Toronto), Circa (Montreal) and Illington Kerr Gallery (Calgary). Riddle was the recipient of a full fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center in May 2005 and a finalist of the 2008 Royal Bank of Canada’s Canadian Painting competition. Her paintings can be found in the collections of ALDO Group, The Canadian Art Foundation as well as privately.

Conceptually interested in the intersection of real / artificial and this slippage in the visual arts, Riddle joined Parisian Laundry as director and curator in August 2005, and, since then, has shaped an identity for Parisian Laundry, positioning it as a primary platform for contemporary art in Canada.

Recent programming includes the Canadian premiere of Brooklyn based videast and performer Kalup Linzy, important solo exhibitions of Valérie Blass and Rick Leong as well as bgl’s 3 floor exhibition Postérite. Riddle’s vested interest in the practice of art making as well as her passion and dedication remain the central core of the gallery’s energy.

Conversation with Jeanie Riddle:

Camilla Singh After I record the conversations and delve into the process of transcribing them, I find that’s when the visuals of a uniform may come to mind. Transcribing by hand is unnecessary, there is software that can do that. But the conversations strike me entirely differently as a listener, and its conducive to reflecting on what was said.

Jeanie Riddle Maybe that’s where you see patterns, somehow in that visual language, if its transcribed you see how people are repeating an idea or something happens in how we discuss things, or how the conversation unfolds.

CS So, how did you enter into curating? Tell me a bit about that so that I’m not assuming anything about the scope of what you’ve done as a curator – your curating history and how you got into it.

JR Ok. Well, I got into it by accident or by mistake! No, it’s not a mistake it’s a good thing! I am a practicing visual artist, and I hopped into this space called Parisian Laundry in Montreal that is owned by an amazing person named Nick Tedeschi. I organized a thesis exhibition where I also showed my own work (www.jeanieriddle.com). He needed some help in organizing some projects that he had in mind. At the time I went on a residency, came back to Montreal, was hired at Concordia to run their new gallery and took that position. But then that (the gallery) wasn’t yet built, so it was organizing architecture. I was moonlighting for Nick T. We put legs on a few projects, but they weren’t my vision, they had nothing to do with what I think about as an artist or as a curator. That was 2005, by 2007 I had started working with different artists and it was at that point I realized that things that I had thought about during my Masters, were coming to fruition in this gallery space. Those (ideas) being between what is real and what is artificial, and how we live in the world and how things sort of come together in personal visions. The artists that we work with right now, someone like Valérie Blass or BGL, have a significant voice and I think they are doing something that is completely unique in that they are making up these whole worlds for themselves. I’m fascinated in generating those ideas further. I work super close with artists because curator Big “C” curator, I think of someone who has graduated with an art history thesis behind them and can sort of unpack that. I’m hands-on, immediate. I work by intuition so in working with artists it’s completely intuitive, and how things feel sort of reasonable and balanced.

CS What types or categories of curators do you think there are out there?

JR Well, like I said, I think there’s the Big C curators who are total theorists and sort of put ideas together by means of a thesis and then look for artists to fit into that idea. And then I think there are others that are more organic in nature that, if there’s already a vision….I’ll speak for myself actually…If I already have a vision of something that I’m going towards or my own personal aesthetic, then all of the artists seem to fall into place.  So the vision just starts taking over, and it works because there is some nugget in the inside of it.

CS In your answer to the first question you have touched on most of the questions I’m going to ask, so you can use the rest of the questions to elaborate and then we’ll see where the conversation goes. Have you heard people comment that curators of group exhibitions are putting themselves too prominently in the shows vs. curators of solo exhibitions? If so, do you have any opinion about that?

JR I don’t even know what my opinion of curators is to be perfectly honest. I struggle with that as an identity with all the other hats that I have on. But I think one thing that curators do is that they make people excited, at least in this world. If you talk about something that’s going to generate a show or disseminate an idea, then curation becomes the means to do that. So the moment you meet a curator, you know that you’re talking to someone that has potential behind them, and that if they get turned on to what you’re doing then maybe something is going to be exploited. I think that’s the exciting part and I think that a curator, a good one, can move between solo or group exhibition depending on what they are thinking about. There are so many triggers right now and so many optics to move through in the visual arts that I don’t even know where to start. There are as many curatorial ideas as there are artistic ideas. When the two converge it can be a happy place, for sure.

CS What does curating entail for you? Tell me about what your process is when you either have an idea or see a work, how does it come together?

JR I think again it goes back to my wanting to erase that I’m a curator. I really think that I am a manger or a director or that I have an engagement with the artists that I am working with. However, it is true that when I step into the studio of an artist that I don’t know, things do spark and I start forming relationships. But the relationships always stay within my little family, I guess because I am involved in the commercial market. It means that even though I can have a grand idea, it doesn’t mean I can bring all of those artists together, because I’m not in an institution. So that becomes a bit problematic and sometimes I have to reel my ideas in. But I’ve lost the question now!

CS haha, no that’s good. We’ll go back to it. Its good to take a step back and establish whether you see yourself as a curator. That should be the first question. The reason that I approached you was not because I see you as a curator, but I see you as engaging in curatorial acts. There are other people I could approach more clearly as a curator, no question, or with less question as to whether we share that understanding of what they do…or someone who’s got curator in their title as a job situation.

JR I like the complication. I had a fight with someone at dinner again who was telling me that I can’t be an artist and a director. I’m so sick of the “can’t all the time. I don’t need the rules. Anything can happen and I am a practicing thinker. That’s how I think of artists and that’s how I think of a curator. So if I am always thinking of all these things and looking through how artists are talking about new things then I think I am in an engagement. I think as a curatorial practice, that’s again where a dialogue is occurring: that we are thinking together. Even this, right now, we are thinking through the idea of what all of this means. I don’t ever go backwards to art history. I am in the actual and I want to talk significantly about now and about things that are affecting us in the world. And about the responsibility of an artist to engage in unique voice, always, whether its abstract or super hyper political. I work with both.

CS I’ve chosen tartan as a pattern for the uniforms, and I look at it like its got a history that came from the hills and identified people defending their land against an organized army. The colours identified clans with an area because they used the soil and plants and flowers to make dyes, and those were all specific to an area. The patterns changed over time as the technology has changed to create other colours but the pattern also became a symbol of diplomacy worn by the British in a meeting with Scottish leaders. Tartan came from rebellion and was co-opted by an established authority. It’s a pattern that’s constantly ripe for appropriation and for its affiliation to be subverted. Its represents both punk and pedigree, both Vivienne Westwood and royal blood. It can also represent things in between, but it never really seems to stay rooted to one meaning. Curating is in an interesting place because it’s beginning to be defined by the emergence of curatorial schools and it remains undefined in many ways. What do you need to know, how should you approach this kind of work? Some people accept and find merit in curatorial study programs, others find it antithetical to the practice. But the one thing for sure is that, much like an artist’s practice, it will keep evolving. It will find new meaning. Tartan makes a lot of sense for this thing that refuses to stay in one place. That’s in response to what you are saying about not identifying with the word curator, but rather, being committed to doing what you do, which falls under a number of headings.

JR It’s just sort of being a rustler! You’re bringing something together, you’re assembling your idea, or an idea. I think sometimes a curatorial practice just means helping an artist select the works to show. Sometimes an artist needs someone that has the distance that they can say, “oh yeah that can work together”, or I trust your vision because you have the experience of managing and exhibiting exhibitions over and over and over again. I think that becomes part of a community. We all recognize people that are in the arts. There is that vibe, or well there is that funny little uniform. I always make the joke, I’ll be the blonde in black, you won’t miss me! Right? Everybody knows that. Oh I’m gonna go to an opening and we’ll all be in black. It’s the funny thing. It would be fun if we had something that told the world who we are. And to have the world understand that there is experience behind that person, instead of pushing off art as being loose and nothing. Knowing that someone has been put through the rings and time of university and all of this critical thinking that is about the engagement of making art or producing or establishing art, all of those things. So I like the idea, for sure.

CS There are more clearly defined and recognized stages of accomplishment in different fields of work.

JR Like the folks that wear the Order of Canada pin. They always have it on. They always wear it. There are corporate people I work with who wear a badge showing that they’ve been there 25 years. It’s an acknowledgement that that’s the pro.

CS What a great thing to incorporate and to think about for the uniforms!

JR five years in, ten years in…the anniversaries

CS emerging, mid-career, established…

JR …old, dead. Dead’s a good one, don’t forget dead.

CS Another component of the uniform is the Chatelaine from the 17th century. Beautiful, silver, and ornate, the tools of your profession hang from a plate attached to your belt line on silver chains. What are the tools of your trade?

JR A champagne flute, my hairdresser’s phone number, my lip gloss, mascara, credit card, Kleenex box, smart phone you know my iPhone. Those are the things that would be critical to me. A picture of my daughter, always, because she is part of everything that I do…the legacy that is her. Those are my necessities. Oh and a charger! I always seem to forget my charger or leave it in hotels.

CS Ok, so what’s your process for doing what you do as regards putting exhibitions together or figuring out the roster of artists you work with.

JR Critical international visibility. I feel like I should get that tattooed on me. I insist that I want people to be recognized, and certainly there’s a significant undertone around Parisian Laundry that it feels like it has volume, it feels like a place of substance. And also it is the place of super good vibes and I always try to ensure that. You’re talking clan, but the community that’s around me, they are my family now. That’s critical to me, that I want engagement. I mentioned my daughter. Again, she’s my driving point always. I think that as a woman it takes a lot more effort to get where you want to be. I know that my kid is watching me and I want to show her that I can do all of this. She is someone that becomes part of that community and I try to get her involved. I try to get her to speak through language that we recognize in the visual arts but for someone that’s new to it, well it’s a brand new thing. With that in mind when I work with artists I hope that they are people who are genuinely good people and that they are bringing something new to current thinking or current critical thinking. From there I hope that they will respect and trust me enough that we can work together. Like I said earlier, my process comes from working with artists. If I can get into their studios as often as possible and be part of that conversation instead of..

CS Which conversation?

JR The conversation of practice, of what we do in a studio. Sometimes I visit a studio and they say “oh sorry I have nothing up”. And I say I don’t care, I’m in your studio!! I understand this as a safe place so lets start there and see how it evolves out. I generally insist that they look at what Parisian Laundry is, because it starts with love. There’s love all around the building and its enormous! Its fuelled by architecture and sometimes difficult to manage, so in my process I try to tell people that critical mass and density is critical in imagining exhibitions there. Large scale, sure.  We’ve tried to work with small scale and sometimes it works but still there is a critical mass that has to be evolved. This becomes my to-do list. In a way it’s not necessarily fuelled from an idea, but it’s fuelled by how we’ll present the best-looking show too. That’s really important to me, that there’s a balance to an exhibition, that it feels super user friendly and not awkward unless we want it to be awkward. So that you can engage with the artwork. I’ll explain it by example actually because this is something that stuck with me. Here in Toronto at the Power Plant when Wayne Baerwaldt showed Daniel Richter and Wayne and Daniel had come to an agreement to set up a huge carpeted, multi-chair area with a couple catalogues on the floor because Daniel really wanted to engage with the art and be comfortable with the art. It was such a pleasant experience to be in a place that was comforting where you could feel at home, feel at ease. I generally try to do that at Parisian Laundry, make it super accessible. At the same time, when I say accessible, I mean accessible for people that want to engage with contemporary art, not accessible for stupid questions. Hahaha.

CS Looking for effort on both sides, right?

JR Yeah, we just had Valérie’s work up and it was such a beautifully balanced exhibition. She’s really sort of old school. She’s really forward thinking in her work, but old school in her tropes of presentation so she really likes platforms and pedestals. She was pushing it even further so she ended up painting them and wrapped some in textiles and things just became a bit different and it was really like being in her playground. It was really good and I had encouraged her to produce some 2D works, some collages. They were sort of sporadic through the space, but again, within a perfect balance. And Parisian Laundry is super symmetrical so there really has to be a visioning all the time. The process then is getting the best visual aspect out of it. But it goes back to the fact that you’re already aware of their practice and aware of their language.

CS There’s a trust already established.

JR We’ve had the opportunity where artists have made huge in-situ works at PL and I’ve just given them carte blanche because I know, I respect the idea of installation, and I know too that there will be hiccups and the moments of well what do you think. The discussion that comes from that. Or the moment of ending in an installation. Going back to Valérie, with the plinths that I talked about, they happened while we were installing. At first we thought that everything would be on the concrete floor and then she just didn’t want that to happen so the gallery became her studio for two weeks with my assistant, and it was great. Or David Armstrong Six, he built a massive installation in the bunker. He worked for a month, and you know, you get something out of it.

CS So I see what you mean now with the time: time working in the gallery space.

JR Like a residency, a non-sleeping-over residency. You’re in a new context. You’re outside of your studio so you’re outside of your comfort zone, but you know you’re in a place that’s safe and that is respectful of what you’re doing. So that’s generally what I try to do and to facilitate – if you need something, you want to talk now, I’m right there, let’s talk about it.  Not to mention the fact that I get super excited and I die every moment that something amazing is occurring in the gallery! Because when its hot its hot. I love it.

I WANT THE UNIFORMS TO HAVE SOMETHING ENDURING ABOUT THEM. NOT SO SPECIFIC TO THE MOMENT THAT THEY LOOK RIDICULOUS NEXT FASHION SEASON.

CS When you were working with Valérie and encouraging her to work 2-dimensionally, how would you describe that part of the relationship or process of working with her? Or in a similar situation with other artists you’ve done that with. Did you feel like that would be beneficial to her practice, or already feel she was moving that direction? How does it come about?

JR It’s definitely market driven. I would be disrespecting everything we’re going through if I didn’t mention that, because Valérie, has a lot of fans all around her and sometimes, the thing about the market that fucks up an artist is that, all of a sudden, friends that you love can’t afford your work anymore. So, part of the means of producing these 2D collages is that we were hoping to give some accessibility to some audience that we know love Valérie but can’t afford her any longer. So that was the starting point of doing that. But then it also made sense to me, understanding her practice, that collage is the means of her thinking about her sculpture also. Or even this juxtaposition of materials, so it just made sense that it could translate into 2D work. And it worked really well. And she’s going to continue that now. That’s sort of exciting too because, especially starting from sculpture, at least 2D collage you can do anywhere in the world. You can sort of pack it with you, a little different. So people really liked it. Yeah, it was good!

CS I haven’t seen them…are they online?

JR No, they’re not online. You can see them in the installation shots but I didn’t put them online because they’re not available. They all went of course. But her partner, Luc Paradis, he makes strictly 2D work. He’s also been an influence on her right now in expanding what she’s doing, not to mention the fact that well almost 2 years ago Hunter and Cook asked her to do a couple of pages. And that’s the first place where she did some collage. Things just come around. As long as the bud of the language isn’t fucked around with too much, you can investigate other means of dissemination like that and it becomes interesting.

CS It sounds to me like you have a very keen awareness both of what she’s doing and the governing factors of how she arrives at what she makes. As well as the market and how to keep her fans in her realm through a previous price point.

JR Art practices and careers evolve, right? I think it’s beautiful to live with art. And part of what I try to push along is, well…live with art! It’s pretty easy! I guess that means selling something and I hate the word sell. That’s not what I want. I want people to understand that when you have a piece of work around you, you have original thought with you. There’s something immediate about the satisfaction of being with an artwork and that’s generally what I try to tell collectors or otherwise. But the art market is such a weird place. I don’t really know how to understand it. That’s why I can borrow back from curatorial practice and away from an art-dealer practice, because I don’t even know what that means!! So again, it’s a means so that everyone can have that thinking (an artwork).

CS I get the idea that the way that you work, regardless of which hat you are wearing, is that your approach comes from being an artist and how you work as an artist. So can you talk about your work as an artist?

JR Yeah! Well I trained as a painter but I also make large-scale installation that I think is an expanded painting practice. I’m super economical and I try to do the less-is-more approach, always. I’m interested in things like density and volume and architecture and these trigger words that happen for me. And I think that, at my crux, it’s finding a home always. I want to be able to create space, or the illusion towards space, that we can feel at peace there. Where something else happens and we recognize a human relationship, or the hand of the artist. I certainly borrow from tropes of minimalism and formalism, but I think that adding touches that reflect mistakes or accidents or seeing gesture or hand, that that sort of inquires something else in a practice. There is an authorship in it that’s not manufactured, but homemade. And I also liken it often to food, and transformation of food.  There’s something that you do when you have this sort of index of a recipe and you take it and something new happens. I’ll often do the same thing over and over in the practice and I’ll get a different result every time. So it becomes like a recipe. I’m fascinated by what becomes a pattern. So I think in that way too, the experience of working with artists, its still doing the same thing over and over because now, with all these exhibitions under my belt, I know what I have to do. I know what my job is but I’m still going to get a different result. Its kind of exciting, but its also practice, you know, that this is what I have to do to get this work out there. Sometimes I work with artists who are close to my personal aesthetic or my personal sensibility but sometimes they’re way off in how their approach but I can still access what they’re doing just through my understanding of what it means to have a studio practice as well. Again its something else that I have an ability to do: talk to an artist like an artist. It’s fun. It’s fun. It’s lucky, I feel really privileged more than anything.