“Political Art” at Art Chicago? An Interview with Mary Jane Jacob
Beth Capper spoke to Mary Jane Jacob, Director of Exhibitions at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and guest curator of Partisan, one of the three special exhibitions held in conjunction with this year’s Art Chicago. Presenting politically engaged work within a context of an art fair might be a highly contentious idea, so Capper probed Jacob’s interest in engaging in the fair and pondered on the efficacy of the work.
“I don’t like art fairs,” says Mary Jane Jacob. This is a curious statement considering her role as curator of Partisan, a special exhibition in the upcoming Art Chicago that explores socially and politically oriented art. As our interview gets started, Jacob immediately seems uncomfortable with the tag “curator,” stating that she acts more as a “juror” of works that are “self- selected and self-imposed by galleries that are already participating in the fair.”
Jacob says she doesn’t have any idea what artworks will be in Partisan, and is waiting for an email from the “organizers” to present her with the works. This context could be challenging, in light of its apparent opposition to Jacob’s general curatorial practice; she is best known for Culture in Action, a series of public art projects initiated as part of “Sculpture Chicago” in the summer of 1993, aimed at redefining the relationships among artists, art administrators and audiences. This project is was demonstrative of her curatorial practice as a whole, which mostly consists of large-scale, participatory public art projects unbound by traditional gallery space. Her role in conceiving and selecting works for Partisan is decidedly more limited.
Yet, Jacob muses, “I thought it was exceptional for an art fair to decide that it is going to put on a political show, and it seemed to be a step in the right direction. The practice of curating is something that is in some ways a reactionary as well as a proactive practice, and I’m always dealing with opportunities and limitations and trying to shape them into something that is good. Many times this takes me somewhere that is better than if I was just sitting in my office with the door closed with no budget problems, with everyone saying yes to everything I want.”
Concerning the content of Partisan, Jacob points out: “A lot of things that we think of as political art are not going to be there. So artists working in genres that are purposely not commodities, not salable or anti-systems will not be represented.” However, various incarnations of the “political” have historically played as vibrant a role in challenging audiences within the gallery walls, as they have outside of them. Jacob agrees: “We could take a person like Hans Haacke, who certainly deals with [political] subjects and yet still chooses to put it back into institutionalized space, to put it back into the complicit space of the collector. While I do acknowledge that this exhibition is a limited one within this specific context, and although Haacke is unfortunately not in my pool of available artists, there are still interesting things that could come through here.”
Perhaps political art might even be more effective in reaching audiences in the context of an art fair that otherwise may not contemplate the lives of inner-city housing project residents in Chicago (Paul D’Amato’s Be Free Now photography series) or the abuses of detainees in Guantanamo Bay (Dinh Q Lee’s video The Penal Colony). The fact that overtly “Political” art has lost some of its salience in our present art world has less to do with the institutionalization of dissent and more to do with the nuanced and complex ways in which artists now conceive of and express the political.
Is Partisan representative of a genuine interest in exploring and representing the “political” or does it have more to do with the idea that the political fervor of the past year makes political art a more salable commodity? To see things in such a polarized manner, however, is overly simplistic, and assumes the two aspects are mutually exclusive. It will certainly be instructive to gauge the currency of the work by the responses the exhibition receives in context of the current uncertain moment.
Beth Capper is an arts administrator and independent film curator from Brighton, England. She is an MA candidate in the Arts Administration and Policy and Modern Art History, Theory and Criticism program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Dual ‘11). Alongside her partner Kelly Shindler, Beth is currently working on Refracted Lens, a new Chicago-based film series committed to exhibiting cutting-edge film, video, and new media work.