Artist working in small scale and Assistant Director at FLAG Art Foundation
Jonathan Rider is a New York based artist and curator, and has been Assistant Director at The FLAG Art Foundation since 2014. Rider previously worked as Assistant Curator at Art in General from 2011-14, where he helped plan and execute the institution’s ‘New Commissions’ program, curated the Musée Miniscule with emerging artists, and used social media channels, such as Instagram and Tumblr, to boost public engagement, physical attendance, and create new context around AiG’s exhibitions. At FLAG, he continues to work with artists to develop ambitious solo and group exhibitions, while also expanding the institution’s online presence. Beyond his day curatorial and arts administrative roles, Rider maintains an active studio practice where he creates intimately-scaled, densely-packed assemblages from paper, cardboard, and found materials. He has recently co-curated PLACE: Monumental Drawings by Dawn Clements, Cynthia Lin, Gelah Penn, Fran Siegel, Equity Gallery, New York, NY (2016) with Gelah Penn and curated Martin Weinstein: Platonia, MSW Studio, New York, NY (2016).
I showed a small 3x5 inch work in Equity’s inaugural group exhibition 2015:1947, which held a large wall all by itself. That show was the first time in the two years that the work took to make that I had seen it outside my studio, and I think there’s something special about a small work that can command space. My favorite piece from Frieze New York this year was Richard Pettibone’s little, purple Andy Warhol, 'Lavender Disaster' 1964, 1969, a riff on Warhol’s electrocution chair paintings, but at a fraction of the original scale – it was a tremendous piece.
For me, looking at small work allows for a more intimate experience and engages a viewer in a completely different way than a large painting or sculpture. I think of Nicole Eisenman and her recent show at the New Museum. She paints a crowd scene like no other. There's these moments where the thick impasto painting looks almost as if she globs it on and off. Those are moments that pull me in, whereas most of those paintings I can take it all in by just standing 15 feet back and not getting close. With my work, if you don't get close you miss the whole thing, and there’s only room for one person at a time.
Why are you interested in making works at a smaller scale?
I was encouraged my first semester in grad school to experiment with sculpture. I started working on pieces of wood that I found in the woodshop, all about the size of my fist – I felt very comfortable with that scale. I also found a bookbinder’s hole punch around that time, which reduced material to a 16th inch, which quickly developed into my sweet spot for scale. My first pieces were made of cut paper on wood, and then I started sourcing different types of found, non-precious materials – plastic, wood, cardboard, metal, etc.
I have a larger piece, about 18 x 5 inches, that’s been in the work for the better part of the past four years. It’s one of the largest pieces I’ve attempted, but the scale is wrong and I can’t work my way out of it and decided it needs to be cut in half. With work that takes a long time to make, it’s terrifying to make changes this far in, but I need to see the piece in a different way and at a different scale.
How does being an artist influence how you operate as a curator and vice versa?
I began a work-study position at Art in General my first semester in grad school, which continued for two years and led to a full-time position. I consider that work-study experience a second graduate education: I was working one on one with curators and artists to make exhibitions of new work come to life. I learned how to install work, use a woodshop, figure out complex tech, write a press release and work on a social media approach – all the things that go into the planning and presenting of an exhibition. This was all invaluable to my studio practice as well – learning how to install, pack, write, and think about my work in a gallery setting.
The difference between being a curator and an artist is blurry for me – both are creative processes that involve problem-solving, thinking on your feet, and defending good work and ideas. Some artists’ studio practices are solitary while others are more collaborative. Either way, when the art/ideas transition from the studio to the gallery, there are a lot of nerves and 3am conversations about placement, paint color, grammar in the press text, etc. Going to artists’ studios is my favorite part of my job, seeing how someone arrange their personal space, how they talk about their work, seeing how the ideas transform into something visual. On the flip side, as an artist I find studio visits nerve-racking.
There are also many artists who curate exhibitions: Robert Gober, Dahn Vo, Marilyn Minter – I’m not sure they would consider curating a part of their artistic practice but it does open (for me) an interesting window into their artwork. Gober curated an exhibition of paintings and writing from Forrest Bess for the 2012 Whitney Biennial; I still think about that show.
Being closely involved with the art world in both the making and curating aspects, what do you think needs to change in the art world?
The whole thing needs to slow down. I see art every day of my life and love it, but as an artist who works slow, and a person who appreciates some slow work, it’s hard to keep up.
If you work at a gallery, nonprofit, museum or write for a publication, you’re always thinking next show, next artist, next biennial, what’s three months away, what’s six, what’s happening in spring 2017? And there's always another biennial, art fair, collection visit, dinner, book launch, anniversary gala, gallery or museum opening. This year, people were at opening at new Tate expansion in London and then went to Zurich for the Picabia show, ArtBasel, maybe the Berlin Biennial, then onto Italy for Christo & Jean Claude’s Floating Piers, then to Athens for an opening at the Deste Foundation, then Stromboli for Fiorucci Art Trust. Some of these people haven’t come home yet. This also opens up a conversation on privilege and access, which is another conversation that’s not really talked about in the art world – at least not in a meaningful way.
And there are artists who are financially motivated to keep up. I’m dubious about the production end because there are artists opening multiple exhibitions at multiple galleries and presenting new work at every art fair. Another silver pumpkin? How many pieces are in this series? There’s significant pressure for artists who show with commercial galleries to keep up. Programs are switching shows every 6 to 8 weeks, and some have multiple locations. If the gallery wants an article or review in The New York Times, they need to pitch to writers sometimes 6 months in advance. In magazines even longer lead, what will W or Vogue’s art issue look like next November?
People are also way too cognizant of the market and the price of artwork. FLAG did a show earlier this year of Cecily Brown, Jeff Koons, and Charles Ray. Each artist was well represented by important work from significant series, in a context that shed new light on each of their respective practices. I thought the show was tightly edited, humorous, and surprising, but a lot of visitors just wanted to discuss value and the market first. To be fair, each of the artists is at the top of the market. Koons makes magical objects that push technology and the entire field of contemporary sculpture forward, but his market and studio assistants are generally the first things that come up in conversation about his art. Contemporary art is hard to understand and discuss, but money isn’t and people gravitate to the numbers first. It would be nice if that could change.
Why is it important for artists to be part of the art community?
It’s vital to be a part of a community of peers, to have access to seeing other artists and artworks/ideas, to be part of a conversation, even in a small way – these things are invaluable to any artist at any level. I see as many gallery and museum shows as possible, and I make an effort to support friends, former classmates, and artists and collaborators I’ve worked with over the last seven years. I’m a big believer in maintaining conversation with your community and connecting artists and opportunities along the way.
As both an artist and a curator, what tips would you give to an artist who is interested in branching out to gravitate attention towards their work?
As an artist I need tips myself. I’m not a huge fan of studio visits and don’t like people in my space. However, it’s important that the work is seen, which means it’s important to have people in the studio. The studio is a safe space to think and be critical, but when you go out you have to put on a business cap and take a bit of a distance on your work.
As a curator, I always tell artists to start at NYFA; it’s a great resource for open calls, residencies, and grant opportunities. Open calls are also excellent opportunities to propose exhibitions and get your work seen by selection committees. Art in General, Apexart, New York Artists Equity/Equity Gallery and Sculpture Center all have open calls. Make good work and make it personal. Have a conversation about it and get it out there.
Interviewed by Sarah Cho