The idea must have been in the air, or in this case, maybe we should ascribe it to some transcendental robocaller, but two group exhibitions -- "TEL-ART-PHONE" at Beacon Arts, and "Telephone" at the Torrance Art Museum -- both of which opened Saturday, made creative use of the children's game "telephone."
Actually, each exhibit interprets the game -- in which a phrase is whispered from ear to ear until it becomes something else entirely -- in distinctly different ways. For "TEL-ART-PHONE" curator Mat Gleason, the game is a metaphor for the creative process; for Max Presneill, curator of "Telephone," the game is a way to think about the informal network of relationships that make up an art community.
But both exhibitions share more than the use of an errant metaphor. In a significant way, each attempts to rethink the changing role of the curator in contemporary art.
"TEL-ART-PHONE" curator Mat Gleason established a series of chain reactions: a work of art was given to another artist to inspire a new piece; the new piece in turn was handed off to another artist who was unaware of the prior piece in the chain. There were between eight and ten artists in a chain, eighty artists in all. Ideas and images would be translated, adapted, reinterpreted and re-contextualized as they traveled from piece to piece.
It did not always work, as some artists were too imitative of previous work, and some ignored it. When it worked, as in the chain that started with Michael Salerno and went to Laura London, William Rabe, and eight others, concluding with Martin Durazo, the effect was outstanding. Here, one could follow an abstract idea as it progressed and finally became embodied as a physical object.
Gleason described an unexpected eeriness that sometimes occurred in the process. "Certain elements in a chain," he said, "will disappear and then weirdly reappear, later on." Gleason referred to the chain that included the Sean Duffy assemblage, Luv, as an example. In Duffy's work, amongst a Fresno shot glass, a Chevy "Luv" emblem, and other detritus, is a section of a vinyl record. The image of the record is included in two subsequent pieces, and then disappears. Five works later, in Doug Harvey's contribution, a record reappears. "Is art magical?" Gleason wondered. Who's to say otherwise?
Seemingly proving Gleason's point is the way "TEL-ART-PHONE" itself appeared along with the "Telephone" exhibition. The curator of "Telephone," Max Presneill, uses the telephone metaphor differently, however. He picked only the first artist, Eric Yahnker, for his exhibition. Yahnker could then pick any artist he wanted, with the caveat that the artist be of the opposite sex. The chain kept going, and forty artists were successively chosen. Further democratizing the process, artists also selected their own work for the exhibition. Jason Ramos, Torrance Art Museum's assistant curator, saw "Telephone" as "a good way to see what other artists were looking at, who other artists thought were important and should get shown."
The exhibition circles around, but never quite lands on a theme. Still, there are many worthwhile individual works, many more than I can mention. David Yamamoto's photographs of retail stores shuttered by the recession give almost classical dignity to, of all things, a Circuit City. At least we now know that our declining empire will produce picturesque ruins. Jamison Carter's floppy anti-form silicone mop-tops are wittily poised on sharp geometric glass bases. Ariane Vielmetter's reproduction of a posthumous musical score by Chopin, titled The Devil is in the Details is intriguingly elusive.
The process employed by "Telephone" could have had eccentric results. And the exhibition does stray -- though perhaps not far enough -- from art museum norms. One exception was Adam Overton's contribution, a performance piece in which he attended the "other Telephone show opening," and tweeted about his experiences. Also his decision to select a poet, Margaret Wappler, as the next artist in the chain was an effort, as he put it, to "spin out to another realm." "Telephone's" curator had to have been daring to design a museum exhibition with this anarchic potential.
The two exhibitions, "Telephone" in particular, find productive ways to de-center the curatorial process. In changing the selection of artists and their works from a model based on curatorial fiat, to a model of peer-to-peer interaction, the metaphor may be the telephone, but the reality is social networking.
"TEL-ART-PHONE" is at Beacon Arts through July 3. "Telephone" is at the Torrance Art Museum through June 25.