Hernan Jourdan

and the megabyte horses

Inter-view with Rita Pervalone

Argentinean curator Rita Pervalone’s upcoming show is just around the corner –following her style “art on tour”, she’s taking her exhibition “Americana, Call Me Back Mañana” all over the U.S., where she juxtaposes art from different places and times in the history of the United States in the hope to reflect how eclectic things can get.

Rita Pervalone

I am meeting Rita Pervalone at Que'l Que Chose in New York, a French styled bar close to MoSex, where she’s finishing figuring out last-minute details for her show. On my way here, a gallery owner in SoHo who’s met her tells me her straightforwardness makes her feel like “a gust of fresh air in the stuffed rooms art is traditionally locked in”.  I get to the bar and she arrives shortly after. She is vibrant and quiet, perky and thoughtful, and I’d even say she’s young and discreet too, but immediately after we choose a bottle (she lets me do it) she leans towards me and whispers: “I have a horrible itch in my inner thigh!” –so for now I’ll do without the latter adjective.

HJ: How did you come up with the idea for this show?

RP: Well, it feels natural –like I didn’t really need to do that much but take things as they are. I mean, this country has a very eclectic cultural production –why not put it all together in one space?

HJ: In the past you’ve argued that much of the American art in the 18th and 19th century constantly had its eyes set on European art, in an effort to construct an identity that reflected European values more than any native or pre-existing ones. How did this affect the show?

RP: It only made things more interesting. Some people were so oblivious back then for the sake of creating a single narrative about “their country” (air quotes), that many cultures were left out of what the cannon began to consider “art”, specially what came from less favored ones like women, slaves, and aborigines. But now the establishment has became more flexible, and much more self-aware of the shit it’s done. Also there has been a real learning curve in what we can call art. The 20th century has had a lot to do with that –so many artists have smashed against the floor over and over again what art is or can be that now is common to see almost anything in an art gallery, even a calf cut in half! So I can, for example, mix all this artwork from very different backgrounds inside a little box and let things come out randomly, and let new associations be made.

HJ: You also included pieces from other countries...

RP: Yeah, in what I called the “Imitation Wall” (laughs)... We all learn from imitation. Aristotle broke it down for us thousands of years ago. So it’s not really that I’m calling anyone a cheater. I just want to get the audience to leave some expectations at the door and start thinking that the concept of originality is one that is not completely rid of imitation. Imitation is part of a process and in this case [where an anonymous painting is displayed as trying to imitate the European School], it shows the effort of an artist trying to create a specific kind of art. As such, I think it’s an endeavor worth showing and that it adds a lot to the comprehensive vision I want to offer.

Dutch Map 16th Cent

HJ: What about the map of the Americas made by the Dutch in the sixteen hundreds?

RP: Ah, that map brings up a foreign perspective on the American continent, where the United States is less “differentiated” (air quotes) from the rest of the countries of the same continent. So much of the restrictive immigration policies and the military endeavors the US carries on abroad makes it look like a hostile country nowadays–and the map is a good way to remember how things were before and how they have changed over the years. It’s like looking at a blank book, before any word is in it. The map creates a contrast between four hundred years ago and today and shows how the course of history is an active process in which different forces participate, or in other words, what did we create as a human race given a specific place. The most powerful group usually gets to present history as they like it, but I have the freedom and often enough consider it my responsibility as a curator to present an inclusive vision. And it’s always more fun to poke at the fat bellies anyways!

HJ: “History repeats itself”?

RP: It’s so un-original! (laughs) But yeah, the way big powers deal with history tends to be repetitive, and I don’t want to participate in them. I’m looking for ways to break away from them. The show is an invitation I extend to others to do the same if they want to.

Mrs Skinner

HJ: You’ve included a portrait by John S. Copley (Mrs. Skinner) where a young lady of high-social status has her eyes lost into something that we as viewers don’t get to see. You’ve filled in the blank by placing an old Condom Cabinet in the direction she’s looking at.

RP: (silence) Yes.

HJ: Do you have anything to add to that?

RP: Well, perhaps you’re familiar with the fact that contraceptive methods were banned for about fifty years towards the end of the 19th century and from that you can get to the conclusions that you want. But perhaps you don’t know that and that’s ok too. What matters the most is that one piece is talking to another, which creates a new territory, fertile ground for new meanings and interpretations and what not. Much too often, art is thought of as an unquestionable authority to which we must concede the right to have the last word –specially if it’s an old piece! But so much is lost in this approach. Communication between viewer and maker stops short on the canvas when the person who’s looking at it feels diminished against the painting from the get go. The figure of the artist is heightened and mystified and this doesn’t help the conversation either. Artists are people too. They might be right, wrong or both. Let me just extrapolate this and give you an example: when a six year old cries, do you try to calm him down by explaining him things in a logical way?

HJ: I would, yeah.

RP: (looks challenged) Even if you do this, don’t you think the tone of voice you use is going to be just as important in calming the creature down as the thing you are trying to say? In other words, you want to bring your compassion closer to him and share that moment from an emotional place. The kid and you are both humans and both experience pain. Now think about art again. I always believed relying on our sensibilities brings some kind of emotional gain. It’s often uncharted territory –that’s for granted– and on the opposite side, you have museums relinquishing this exploration and replacing it with the grandiloquent ambition to “understand things” (air quotes again), which thwarts the process of receiving art with an open heart. Reason is put on a pedestal, like it was during the 13th century, even though Dante (Alighiery) tells us over and over again that it can only take us so far. We don’t have to be any kind of experts to see this, we just have to look around us and think where our dissatisfactions are coming from these days.

HJ: What are you seeing around you?

RP: (takes her eyes to the tables on the left, then to the right and rolls them across the bar –the place is packed) Right now, a bunch of people enjoying the illusion of being in Paris in the 1960s for half an hour before they go back outside. Much of the problems in wealthy countries tend to be invisible to the eye, someone said. My impression is that they are located near our sensibilities and how we take care of them. To disregard them altogether for the sake of “control” and “understanding” (air quotes) is already showing us how much we are willing –or accustomed– to ignore them.

HJ: What do you mean?

RP: I read an interview the other day where performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña was pointing out how a lot of performance art in the US isn’t as exciting as it used to be decades ago. This is partly because performance art has been institutionalized so much, he says, and that even though it has developed a complex circuit in the US that is not found in Mexico, for example, performance art there is usually more radical. I want to be honest about the way art is created and shared. I see that there’s a tendency to rely on museums all too much (expecting to be told what’s important), which has created a certain kind of dependence from the audience, diminished their “emotional-wisdom” and the opportunities they have to be moved by a piece of art. For this to happen, the appreciation has to be personal, and there needs to be an emphasis or an effort made in that direction from the curators and museums. A piece might be of “historical relevance” but if that’s all a person can get when he stands in front of it, then he’s not getting much from the painting at all.

HJ: So you think the general public has to revisit his expectations towards art?

RP: What I’m trying to say is... Expecting everyone to develop a somewhat deep relation with every piece of art they encounter would be obviously too much for anyone, but I’m happy by starting to tell people: “NO! Art is not sacred! It’s our residue! We just happen to store our finest examples and best moments for display, in the hope perhaps to build a rapport between humans throughout time”. I want to take the human experience of being alive to a higher place than it is right now. The marketing world has gotten us used to believing that we are not much more than consumers and users, money-makers and money spenders. That’s such a sad and limited way to perceive what a person can be and do. There’s a quote attribute to Leonard Cohen: “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash”. Thank you Leonard!

HJ: Thank you Rita.

RP: My pleasure!

Rita Pervalone