Despite what Andy Warhol might have thought, not everything an artist does is brilliant or groundbreaking. In Warhol’s case, trivial and self-indulgent are also descriptors that come to mind.
For evidence, look no further than his Polaroid photo “studies” of male genitalia, an example of what’s in store in the largely disappointing exhibit The Wet Archive: History, Desire, and the Photographer’s Liquid Intelligence, now on display at the Chazen Museum of Art on the UW-Madison campus.
The student-curated exhibition is undone by promotional verbiage that makes obscure, unfulfilled promises. The “brilliance” of the exhibit, described by its organizers as a gallery in which “the wet lab of volatile processes meets the open closet of intimate exposure and the exchange of looks” exists entirely in the mind of its creators.
The exhibition, which runs through April 5 in the Oscar F. and Louise Greiner Mayer Gallery, was the class project for Art History 602 at UW-Madison. You can credit the student curators and their instructor for putting together a moderately interesting 41-piece, largely black-and-white show of photographic images that skew heavily — and historically — toward an LGBT audience.
An albumen print cabinet card of Oscar Wilde taken during Wilde’s North American lecture series by Napoleon Sarony opens the exhibit, alongside an image of Gertrude Stein at her summer residence in Bilignin, France. Both are historically critical to the LGBT theme’s timeline.
Helmut Newton’s intimate photographs of two female French models, one nude except for black pumps, the other tuxedoed, are memorable. Warhol’s Polaroids, including three shots from his series Nude Model (1977) and “Ladies and Gentlemen (Marsha Johnson)” (1974) — part of his series on transgender activists — occupy much of the exhibit.
The exhibit also includes some less obvious and less self-aggrandizing works, including Mary Ellen Mark’s Roy Cohn and American Flag (1986), taken for Vanity Fair four months before the chief counsel to U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin died of AIDS.
There also are several works by French agender photographer Claude Cahun and American artist Anna Campbell, all of which add to the content of The Wet Archive but not its concept.
The one “liquid” image is a photo by Andy Warhol of Truman Capote from 1980. The image, characterized by fluidity and an out-of-focus character, shows us the blurred buttocks of the bent-over author of In Cold Blood.
The images are fairly flat, although nicely mounted in a standard display in a small first-floor room of the gallery’s Elvehjem Building. It takes about 30 minutes to peruse the entire exhibit, including reading the commentary. The latter leaves visitors better educated about the photographers and the work included in the program.
But all in all, this is a student project that fairly screams, ”Look what we did!,” without doing much of anything at all.
Yet in that, it may still be an excellent opportunity for the students in Art History 602 to give a little more thought to content and concept before embarking on future exhibitions. Just because an idea sounds good doesn’t mean you can execute it in an original way, or that it’s even necessary to.
The Wet Archive: History, Desire, and the Photographer’s Liquid Intelligence runs through April 5 at the Chazen Museum of Art at the UW-Madison campus, 750 University Ave., Madison. Visit chazen.wisc.edu or call 608-263-2246 for more details.
Curators’ response to this review
We are writing on behalf of The Wet Archive Curatorial Team to address Michael Muckian’s review, “‘The Wet Archive,’ at Chazen, leaves viewers limp.” First, thank you for reviewing the exhibition. As curators, our primary aim is to open the exhibition space as a site for engaged conversation by challenging viewers to encounter difficult artworks and ideas. Ironically, the metaphor of failed erection and the pitched tone of Muckian’s review attests (sic) to the aim of our exhibition which is to create a space of public feeling—including the negotiation of disappointment. And this means that not all viewers will feel comfortable. That Michael Muckian was uncomfortable as a viewer is unremarkable. What is notable is that this individual experience of limpness would constitute the only form of evidence the review musters. And what is irresponsible is that this individual experience of limpness would be universalized (as if we would all have the same response) and displaced (as if it were an attribute of the show).
The show’s arrangement on the walls does not follow the spurious sequence Muckian narrates (the show actually begins with Warhol’s photograph of Truman Capote; Sarony’s cabinet card of Oscar Wilde is set next to Helmut Newton’s Rue Aubriot) and, by any computational logic, the number of works displayed in the exhibition does not add up to the number 41 of which Muckian makes much. The works by Anna Campbell which we included in the display case with several pages of Polaroids from the portfolio donated to the Chazen by the Andy Warhol Foundation are not photographs at all, but lasercuts.
What must also be remarked and called out for its betrayal of professional ethics is the blatant and unwarranted hostility that Muckian’s review displays toward the content of the exhibition, the students, and LGBTQ and disability communities. The review deploys the charge of “limp” to shut down the possibilities for productive and respectful dialogue. This hostility breaks with the style and tone of Muckian’s previously published reviews. Why should a show organized by a curatorial team consisting largely of students be the occasion for such a breach in what Muckian commits to print? That it takes a largely student-run curatorial team to draw out such criticism and that, when it does, it should take such an unprofessional form, is a sad referendum (sic) on the state of public arts discourse. And, thus, we have to ask about the purpose of using the exhibition review to launch such an attack. And we also have to ask about the short and long-term effects of doing so at this particular moment. Why reinforce “limp” as a shaming slur and aim it at a show that makes disability access the foundation of its curatorial design at a moment when disability accommodations are still being challenged? Why make a negative example of this show just at the moment of the announcement of unprecedented budget cuts to the UW system? Why tear down intellectual student endeavors at a time when the university system is under assault? Why attempt to shut down innovative curatorial projects at a time when the survival of the arts and humanities are even more deeply threatened?
That Muckian would make his own lack of invigoration the basis for panning the show is the shame. Muckian failed to present any cogent arguments for why he found the exhibition disappointing. Our curatorial team includes senior undergraduates and Ph.D. students, with a range of professional experiences, including curatorial positions at museums, galleries, and universities. It is irresponsible and patronizing to simply dismiss this as a “class project.”
We believe that the university art museum has the unique and valuable role of offering a creative and intellectual space for students, faculty, and museum staff to work together in productive, sometimes risky, ways. We believe that the university museum should be an animate space for intellectual engagement, where we can ask critical questions, and where communities come together to create and support new ideas. We believe our exhibition pushes towards these ideals and reaches out to underserved LGBTQ and disabled audiences, who are often alienated within traditional institutions like the Chazen Museum of Art.
We hope that the Wisconsin Gazette will consider publishing this letter in response to a hostile and unfair review, and as a progressive journal, consider the benefits of supporting student endeavors.
The Wet Archive Curatorial Team
Editor’s Note: The respone above was slightly edited to remove inaccurate and inflammatory assumptions. Wisconsin Gazette stands behind Mike Muckian and the award-winning work he’s done for our publication.