The nature of painting – its objecthood, its permanence — demands a level of resolution and wholeness to which other more ephemeral art practices need not always answer. Hence the exciting and complex impact of Unfinished Paintings, an exhibition that opened last week at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) featuring paintings by 38 different artists at various stages of completion. I asked curators Kristin Calabrese and Joshua Aster a few questions about the exhibition, which Calabrese fielded via email with input from Aster.
Lily Simonson: What was the inspiration for an exhibition of unfinished paintings? How was curating this exhibition different from your previous projects?
Kristin Calabrese: This project is more focused and specific than the other projects we’ve curated. We’ve been narrowing down each show, and I think it’s starting to get to the place where the criteria for the show really reflect our favorite — or most native — ideas as they pertain to art. Josh and I curated 3 projects together — Lovable like Orphan Kitties and Bastard Children — which was a show of 90 paintings under 11 x 11 inches, as you know and were a part of… We also did the  LACE auction, where our curatorial premise was to find raw, unruly paintings, where someone might say when confronted with them, “What the fuck is that?”
I curated quite a few shows before Josh and I started doing it together. In the beginning (as far back as 1992, when I had my own alternative art space) and up until the show I curated at Angstrom (Big Secret Cache), I was interested in including as many kinds of art as possible. I believe all art forms can be used to express the same concerns — other than media self-reflecting — although a video addressing video and a painting addressing painting are somewhat analogous, of course.
LS: How did you come to focus on painting for this show? Why not unfinished sculpture, unfinished video, etc?
KC: I started hearing things about nameless museum curators not liking paintings. Since I love painting the best, am a painter, and know more about painting than anything else, I thought that it was almost my duty to curate painting shows, since there are a lot of other curators who don’t want to. It seemed like a necessity. Also, even though there are videos and sculptures and performances that I love, the truth is I really understand painting — the making of it, the being of it — better than I understand the other things. So since painting is our area of expertise, we figured we have more to share in presenting what I love the best to the community.
While we didn’t curate other media besides painting, we did try to curate as many different types of painting as possible — geometric abstraction, minimalism, figuration, surrealism, etc. This has something to do with the way Josh and I were educated, perhaps, and also something to do with what painting is, regardless of subject matter, at least in contemporary Western painting. In painting classes, critiques are not divided up by category; rather, a class might look at an illustrative painting and then a torn and scratched lumpy non-representational painting. Often in these classes, the formal qualities of the painting are all that are considered until graduate school. In contemporary American painting, there are agreed-upon conventions [of] composing a picture that painters understand. When a painter looks at a painting, [he/she is] usually reading the painting, often turning [his or her] head sideways. What [he/she is] doing is looking at the composition, noticing the points of decision, and being bounced around mentally in looking at the way the paint (and illusion) lead the eye around the canvas. This is the essence of painting. Any kind of content can be contained within it. Painting is AN ALPHABET. I look at painting as a container that has the flexibility to address multiple layers of meaning, dependent only on the intention of the artist. A painting is complete in itself and carries itself with you, wherever you put it (sort of like an individual) — which is awesome and exciting. You can just hang it up on a nail anywhere and there it is, being itself, containing and displaying its content.
LS: How did you choose each artist?
KC: We chose each artist based on what we were obsessed with at the moment. We actually wanted more than twice as many, but we could only get one of the 3 rooms at LACE, so we had to stop. Also, we didn’t pick the particular piece each artist would show; we left that up to the artists unless they wanted us to select.
For this show, we asked each artist for a painting between 120 and 184 perimeter inches (medium sized) that is unresolved or unfinished. When all the paintings are the same size, it allows for a kind of even floor upon which to view the exhibition. Somehow the sizes fall away, and the individual differences that are not actual size become accentuated. Seeing all of these paintings together in the same room is great, because it’s easy to compare the details of how each artist made their piece: this one’s linen, this one’s board with strings; this one has tape, this one has drips on the edges, and even more: the paint on this one is matte, etc. This is why we requested paintings of the same-ish size. It makes looking at the show like looking at a slide show. We hung everything in alpha order by FIRST name. I go with first names for nostalgia for my youth. I never used to know people’s last names, and something about last names makes everything seem so conventional and businesslike…We were trying to take hierarchy out of the equation in any way possible.
LS: The exhibition also includes works by you and [co-curator] Josh. Do you plan to finish the painting you are exhibiting when the show is over? Or does exhibiting an artwork imply that its “life cycle” is complete?
KC: I’m going to finish my painting when I get it back. Josh is too. I haven’t thought of the “life cycle complete after exhibition” thing, although someone else asked me that same question. I often think of exhibitions as irritating events that interrupt an artist’s process…. lol! But, in my mind, asking for unfinished paintings freed the artists and their galleries up from worrying about showing a painting at LACE, where it’s not for sale, and sort of ruining its unveiling for the public…since it would change between unfinished and finished.
LS: What is it like to curate with your romantic partner [husband Joshua Aster]?
KC: Curating with Josh is a real pleasure! We both bring our own people to the shows we do — although we’ve been together for 4+ years now, so our worlds are almost totally blended, the same friends etc., but still, we’re both social in our own ways. Josh is better in person and I’m better on the computer. Josh and I are very much alike: we were both the art school kids who spoke up during critiques, both passionate about painting, and we both are capable of, and do, put our heads down and work. Putting together an art show is A LOT of work. It’s art, so it’s gotta be perfect — everything intentional and considered, so there’s always another stressy thing. With Josh to talk to and work with, we are very efficient at putting together an awesome show!
Workhorses are we! You know, there were days we were so excited we couldn’t sleep and once the paintings started coming in, both of us had moments of tearing up, we were so moved by the incredible, complex generosity of all of the work we were seeing. The paintings being unfinished somehow gave us entrance into the process in a way we hadn’t had before. They made me think about how much focus and care (and risk!) would go into making any one of them — which is overwhelming in the best way.
LS: You and Josh have also made artworks together. Are these two types of collaborations parallel, or is it a different experience altogether?
KC: Making a collaborative painting with Josh is totally unlike curating this show. Once we decided the parameters, we agreed upon and invited artists… This was all somewhat external. There is something very internal about making a painting. Josh is an abstract painter who works in acrylic and I am a representational painter who works in oil. It is really difficult collaborating, because I have to paint on top of whatever he does because of the nature of oil and acrylic. I have to obliterate/paint over some of what he painted, and there is a very different kind of space in each of our paintings; it can look like I painted a decal on his painting, rather than it being a whole, which I don’t want. Painting is very personal, the inside of the container. The show we curated is a container for the smaller containers of content that is inside.