Leading exhibition tours is a privileged position in an art museum. As a docent for the summer exhibitions at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College (CCS Bard), I get to repeatedly test interpretations and turns of phrase, thinking through visitor questions that make me see things that I swear were never there before.
There are two main attractions now on view at CCS Bard. "Amy Sillman: one lump or two" presents almost 30 years of work by drawer and painter Amy Sillman. The exhibition jumps between cartoons, abstract paintings, diagrams, and iPhone drawings with a warmth that makes awkward and lonely social situations—the motor for the work—feel exuberant and tender. On the other side of the museum, "Anne Collier" is a crash course in the conventions of photography, both commercial and conceptual. Collier photographs things with photographs on them, mostly print materials made in the 1960s and `70s. These still lifes, staged in an impeccably spare studio, expose the production of photographic clichés and sexist biases that are as casual as they are seductively weird. I've gone through both these exhibitions with teenagers, artists, public school teachers, collectors, and whoever joins a weekly public tour. Together, we've learned some cool things.
People laugh louder in groups. Maybe because we've come to understand that solitary laughter—committed, body-jiggling solitary laughter—means that you're kind of crazy. The sweet spot number for group laughing in museums seems to be about 10. One of the most satisfying sounds I've heard this summer has been the echoing guffaws of a group watching Amy Sillman's 12-minute animation Triscuits, which contemplates the idea of abstraction via lumpy body parts and various body holes.
A stand-up comic would make a really great museum docent. Maybe this is especially true for "Amy Sillman: one lump or two," where the logic of the exhibition mimics that of stand-up. The work is self-effacing and unforgivingly observant and hyperbolic. Throughout the show, the paintings act as the set-p to the punchline of the titles (or maybe it's the other way around). Fatso, for example, delivers a comedic wallop to a dour green-gray painting of a cartooned figure with one googly eye and a horseshoe of a frown. But more generally, good comics (like good museum docents) need to be a ruthlessly efficient story-tellers. They craft elegant setups and smart punchlines that are linked by a puzzle of connective tissue, to make sure the joke doesn't fall flat.
Anne Collier is a pirate—and you are too. Collier's still lifes are the millennial cousins of appropriation art, or the intentional copying and quoting of existing images in work by artists like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince. During a recent tour at CCS Bard, one visitor's gut reaction to a description of these practices was an emphatic "That's not right," a quick assessment of the ethical questions at stake. But Collier's critique feels a bit more ambiguous. The things she photographs—print books, magazines, postcards, record sleeves, bound calendars—sound quaintly retro, but look flat and meticulous like an Apple showroom. Most people who undertake some kind of creative activity today engage in piracy—some (unauthorized) borrowing, redistributing, remixing of existing information. Collier's photographs of photographs of women taking photographs reinsert things in a conversation about Internet-age piracy, a reminder that the slick, flat Internet is also a series of tubes.
The art needs you. Collier and Sillman both collect and distribute the information of daily life: social emotions, insecurities, the media that is carried around in a bag, hung on a wall, or backlit on a screen. The important thing, the moment when things start to click, occurs during a connection—a mood, a recognition, a gaze—between you and the stuff on the wall. Sort of like Facebook.
"Anne Collier" and "Amy Sillman: one lump or two" run through September 21 at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. Also on view: "Score!" and works from the Marieluise Hessel Collection. (845) 758-7598; Bard.edu/ccs.