A Practical Lesson in the Art of Curation: The Incubation Series at Penn

Unraveled sweaters. Folded photographs. Concrete blocks. Coffee grounds.

As curators of an art gallery exhibition, two University of Pennsylvania art history students found a common thread in these disparate materials used in the work of four Penn fine arts students: Lauren Altman, Erlin Geffrard, Jiayi Liu and Heryk Tomassini,.

The exhibition, titled “Loose Ends,” was co-curated by Jessica Hough and Isabelle Lynch, at Philadelphia’s Seraphin Gallery this month.

The project was made possible through The Incubation Series, a student-run program that gives Penn history of art students the opportunity to curate an exhibition featuring works by student artists in Penn’s School of Design.

“’Loose Ends’ brings together four artists who consider the process of making something new with discarded materials, reminding us of the various ways in which ‘loose ends’ can be retied,” Hough and Lynch wrote in the exhibition catalogue.​​​​​​​

The Incubation Series was founded by graduate students from the History of Art Department and Master of Fine Arts Program who recognized that they could learn and benefit from each other.  It is co-funded by the History of Art’s Sachs Contemporary Art Fund and by a grant from Penn’s Office of the Provost. “Loose Ends” is the program’s eighth exhibition since its start in 2015.

All 12 of the PennDesign students pursuing master’s of fine arts degrees are exhibiting their work this year, although participation is voluntary. Two more exhibitions, as well as a screening and performance event, are planned.

Penn faculty from both history of art and fine arts, along with curators from Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art, have come together to help the students solve curatorial, artistic and logistical challenges, said Karen Redrobe, the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Endowed Professor in Film Studies and chair of Penn’s History of Art Department.

“The Incubation Series illustrates the importance of empowering students to pursue their own creative ideas and collaborations and of finding ways to help them hone their developing skills by working across institutional boundaries,” Redrobe said

“The students have reached out to partners across the city and have learned an immense amount from these partners in return, making The Incubation Series a beautiful example of the multidirectional and multifaceted learning that is higher education at its best.”

The associate director of the Seraphin Gallery is a Penn alumna, Alyssa Laverda, who graduated in 2014 with a coordinated degree from Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

“We like to keep the space dynamic,”” Laverda said. “In addition to showing museum-quality or well-established artists, we are interested in an innovative art space that promotes experimental ideas, and we find interesting artistic concepts brewing at the academic level as well as in mid-career and late-career artists.”  

​​​​​​​Curating an art exhibition is a complicated matter. It involves creating a coherent theme that brings the artworks together, choosing the pieces that best represent the artists and writing a compelling catalogue essay to inform how the works are viewed.

Hough and Lynch grouped the four students together after visiting their studios and discussing the ideas they explore in their works.

“Curating allows me to work closely with artists to realize their vision and create a space for their work to be viewed in the best possible conditions,” said Lynch, who is in the first year of her Ph.D. studies in art history.

“It’s a creative process,” Hough, in the second year of a master’s program, said, “for someone who is not working as an artist to draw out connections between works. Having these four artists’ works together says something that having them alone would not.”   

The concept for the “Loose Ends” exhibition was initially inspired by the work of artist Lauren Altman who cut seams from her mother’s sweaters, laid them on large sheets of photographic paper and then exposed the paper to light. Each unraveled thread is apparent in stark white on the otherwise black photograms. Altman, an M.F.A. candidate, also has a video work in the show, centered around textile industries in India and Pennsylvania.

For artist Jiayi Liu, material comes from her own personal history. Hundreds of photographs from her iPhone, printed and folded and strung together with paperclips, creates the work, “Recycled Image,” drawing its form from the popular practice in northern China of making curtains from discarded candy wrappers. An M.F.A. candidate, her related project combines photographs and coffee grounds, meant to resemble soil.​​​​​​​Assembled on site at Seraphin, artist and M.F.A. candidate Heryk Tomassini explores ways of repurposing industrial concrete cubes from an unrealized Puerto Rican housing project. In the gallery’s front window, a blue tarp acts as a provisional shelter, a reminder of Hurricane Maria’s aftermath.

Artist Erlin Geffrard, a second year M.F.A. student, sources his materials from art-world cast-offs, using leftover canvases and craft supplies for his brightly colored paintings. He also incorporated the gallery’s upright piano into the exhibition by covering it with painted cardboard.

“Any type of exposure is good, and any type of conversation with a gallery is helpful,” said Geffrard. “It’s a sort of testing ground to see what our work looks like out of the context of a studio.”

The winter show in January, at the AUTOMAT gallery, will be curated by art history students Laurel McLaughlin and Tamir Williams. The spring show in March, at the FJORD Gallery, will be curated by Olivia Dudnik and Jeffrey Katzin.



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