The word ‘curator’ originally comes from the Latin meaning ‘overseer, manager, guardian’; it doesn’t seem clear to me how we derived our contemporary version of the title from the Latin. With a focus on creativity and intellectualism, curation is also a buzz-word my MS Word dictionary does not yet recognise. The cultural kudos of the profession now puts curators directly in the spotlight with the artists, while they were once no more than geeky archivists and book-swots hiding away in dark wood-panelled rooms. Yet Justin Hammond, curator of the Catlin Art Prize, convinces me that the contemporary curator can still be true to the more humble Latin job description.
Hammond describes curating as “putting your head above the parapet; you are making a statement about what you think is good and hoping that people agree with you.” Hammond’s sense of being in the firing line is indicative of his relationship to this year’s group of Catlin finalists, as curator-‘guardian’. The prize was originally set up 6 years ago in order to support newly graduated artists making the jump between the debut of their degree shows and the dizzying sea of the art world. Hammond found that he was really passionate about supporting the work of exciting new graduates and he has entirely devoted himself to this cause. Now he finds himself dedicated to a “never-ending cycle of degree shows, studio visits, and meetings with artists until the Catlin exhibition produces a finalist and the process begins all over again.”
Hammond doesn’t seem weary at the thought. His energy and passion comes from “the pleasure of working with such intelligent artists who are continually giving me an insight into their thought process.” Hammond can see that his “tastes are changing” and that he is learning from the artists he meets, he explains that before his studio visit with Tom Howse he just couldn’t quite fathom his work. Now his naïve paintings are eerily lit in the dim light of the LondonNewcastle space and Hammond has to concede “I just really like them.”
As he takes me around this year’s exhibition he shares the stories he has collected: of the performance and residency behind Greta Alfaro’s Invención triptych of meringue church-interiors; or of Adeline de Monseignat’s found vintage furs, once belonging to a woman named Loleta, and now uneasily breathing from within the HEB; and hesitantly, under instructions not to give away too much, of Soheila Sokhanvari’s cryptic TPAJAX which requires Googling before the taxidermied horse and jesmonite underbelly can be decoded. As curator, Hammond forms the connecting links between this group of artists.
There are two main spaces in the LondonNewcastle Project Space, the “domestic space” where Hammond explains that dim, informal lighting and Julia Vogl’s interactive corner Let’s Hang Out are all incentives for visitors to pause and do just as Vogl’s coloured patches of carpet suggest, ‘hang-out’. Hammond believes that Vogl’s participatory art works made her “fundamental” to his vision for the exhibition, while Tom Howse’s cat paintings and Max Dovey’s solemn VHS tapes commemorating the end of analogue TV are all part of the homely furnishings.
In the back room we are presented with “more of a statement, and a challenge.” The scale of the works shifts; Gabriella Boyd’s epic orange-bleached canvases, Jonny Brigg’s large-scale family narratives and Alfaro’s reverent prints confidently fill the desert stretches of wall-space.
Hammond curates the Catlin Art Prize by forming “cores” of artists who he believes will work well together. The shortlist is decided with the exhibition space already in mind, curated for the architecture, and Hammond strives for a coherent exhibition which will not put the artists in direct competition. The fact that this year’s shortlist are about to set up a crit group can only be testament to Hammond’s successful curatorial alchemy.
After six years Hammond admits that he feels the pressure of putting on something fresh, and he continually changes his venue in an attempt never to get too comfortable. This year’s show is anything but comfortable; “I didn’t notice it at first, but the exhibition feels more slick than a graduate show, it is more accomplished.” This is partly down to Hammond’s “natural attraction to work with a focus on skilled craftsmanship”; Ali Kazim’s Self Portraits and the heart sculpted from his own hair are delicate and subtle, “as delicate as Kazim himself,” Hammond laughs, but they are certainly not timid or unsure.
Considering this is a group of graduates, there is nothing anxious or tentative about any of the work. Adeline De Monseignat’s hairy breathing eye balls are disturbingly convincing, her HEB beach might only occupy an alcove of the gallery but an entire sci-fi world can be viewed from this corner. Bananas and Girl Cruising openly celebrate with courage and joy, the certainty of Gabriella Boyd’s skill. They live-up to my secondary school art teacher’s maxim that the bigger, the better, the more confident; the canvases grow with the artist. The Catlin Art Prize might not feel like a graduate show, but that is exactly what it is, and that is justification enough for Justin Hammond to keep searching.
Let’s Hang Out
Photograph by Peter Hope.