Catalyst and Foil
by Steven Matijcio, Director and Chief Curator, Blaffer Art Museum, Houston, 2020
LISTEN was as much about an artist listening to local organizations, and those organizations to their constituencies, as it was about arts organizations — Wave Pool and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (CAC) — listening to a community, an artist, and ourselves. From the outset, Woolard asked Cal Cullen, Director of Wave Pool, and myself, curator at the CAC at the time: Why do we seek to initiate a social practice project with someone who does not live in Cincinnati? Who benefits and how? What form does compensation take, and what is the legacy of such work? Woolard’s artistry is everywhere and nowhere in this process, functioning as both catalyst and foil as she orchestrates situations that prompt each party to recalibrate how they conceive and speak themselves.
Woolard infuses each aspect of her working process with a gentle but pervasive approach to transparency and honest communication, sculpting words, objects, and scenarios that continue to circulate long after their initiation. As a case in point, the artist developed a set of objects that are used as prompts for story-telling, in dialogue with an economic justice organization that wanted to work with her. The organization wanted to move beyond the index cards they were using for storytelling, and Woolard’s kit supported an oral history project in the area. After a series of conversations and events, Woolard created objects that come in a Fluxkit-like structure, a wooden box with two sets of stairs on either side, miniature objects half-hidden in soil. Participants are asked to select an object, pull it from the soil, and see if it prompts a story.
One participant selected a golden mathematical knot that emerges from a meteoroid-like shape. This knot-object speaks aptly to a cooperative process as a sinuous nexus where authorship is shared and direction is non-linear. The organization that Woolard worked with, MORTAR, provides resources to historically marginalized people to start and run successful local businesses. Woolard 3D-printed each of the golden knots in this project to ensure that they are affordable, accessible, and reproducible. This networked way of producing sculptural objects — in any maker space — feels especially relevant in a time when we must work together, from a distance, during COVID. Like the knots extracted from soil in the respective wooden box, pulled like root vegetables from the earth, the objects of LISTEN collectively continue on as enduring icons of actions that are both rooted and mobile, planted without ever being fixed.

sculpting words, objects, and scenarios that continue to circulate long after their initiation

To work with and alongside Caroline Woolard is to inhabit a reflexive arena where one is simultaneously immersed in an interaction with an object and experiencing a project holistically, mindfully analyzing each step and the motivation for every move. In the arts we so often work in shorthand, relying on conventions and upholding what we believe to be enlightened practices — even as the demands of timelines, budgets and the expectations for tangible outcomes erode a priori integrity. LISTEN opened up the sightlines of that which is obscured in second thoughts, and allowed us to hear, and to heighten.

to inhabit a reflexive arena where one is simultaneously immersed in an interaction with an object and experiencing a project holistically, mindfully analyzing each step and the motivation for every move

Steven Matijcio is the Director and Chief Curator of the Blaffer Art Museum. He won a 2010 Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award for the project “paperless” and in 2012 he was the curator of the fourth Narracje Festival in Gdansk, Poland. Matijcio was also commissioned by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in 2003 to curate one of their first online exhibitions.
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