Interview with David Brodie, curator of Art Extra
by Michael Smith
In October 2007, another commercial gallery opened in Johannesburg. The space, Art Extra in Craighall, is curated and run by David Brodie. Brodie has been something of a fixture on the Johannesburg art scene for a number of years now, cutting his teeth as one half a curatorial team (with Brenton Maart) at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, and later as a part of Linda Givon's dynamic team at the Goodman Gallery.
In November I visited the space to see its inaugural exhibition, 'Impossible Monsters', and to chat to David about market position, retaining one's critical edge and keeping afloat in the speculative climate of SA contemporary art. Later I put these questions to him.
Michael Smith: David, Art Extra seems to be distinct from the myriad other spaces that tend to mushroom up in both Johannesburg and Cape Town in that it has a fairly focused curatorial direction. Could you tell me a bit about your guiding philosophy?
David Brodie: The idea with Art Extra is to curate a space where, as much as is possible, there is both critical investigation and market appeal. I'm sure this sounds like a somewhat naïve goal (or perhaps polished capitalism), and only time will tell if such a balance is really achievable/achieved. But the underlying premise of Art Extra is a space to show a variety of work, from both emerging and established artists, which I believe is significant - and because it is significant, commercially viable.
On another point, there is the often-cited criticism that many of the group shows seen in commercial galleries are not much more than talked-up stock shows. So the intention with the first series of Art Extra shows is to offer something of an answer to these kinds of group shows.
MS: Your first show, 'Impossible Monsters', pairs some fairly established names like Penny Siopis and Wim Botha, with some younger and less well-known artists. What underpinned that decision?
DB: 'Impossible Monsters' started with an interest in exploring contemporary versions of the 'monster' or the concept of the 'monstrous', and a line from Goya's Los Capricos series that had stuck in my mind - 'the sleep of reason produces monsters'. From there, I came up with a group of artists who I felt dealt with the theme in interesting and challenging ways, and offered unexpected juxtapositions and connections. The bringing together of established names and emerging artists was both strategic and quite coincidental: on one hand I believe that such combinations potentially give work a very different context and reading - and this is useful to both the established and emerging artist's work; while on the other hand, I worked with the group of artists who I felt had elements of the monstrous in their work that I found compelling and appropriate for the theme.
MS: The show features great new works by the likes of Michael MacGarry, Nicholas Hlobo and Lester Adams, works which are formally quite unexpected and edgy. How important do you think it is for curators to be fostering approaches that are exciting but commercially less safe bets?
DB: I think that it's vital to be showing work that is critically valid, or challenging, or offensive, or absurd - that is just about anything other than simply being 'commercially safe'. Irony is never far behind though: If the work survives and holds onto its status, it often becomes the commercially safe bet anyway. This is the game: the most collectable artists, those that are absolutely 100% part of the canon, the darlings of the market, were mostly, at some point, the edgy 'commercially unsafe' artists to begin with.
At the same time, let me say upfront that I am incredibly weary of being overly-romantic about these things: galleries and their gallerists push their particular vision to the market; they show artists and artwork that represent their particular version of what is contemporary, and what is collectable. One person's risky is another person's constructed, planned and marketed brand!
MS: Tell me a bit about your programme for the next six months or so.
DB: There will be another three curated group shows: 'Impossible Monsters' runs until the end of 2007. 'The Trickster' opens in late-January, and looks at contemporary manifestations of the Trickster - a character who exists in various shapes and forms across all cultures - as one that traverses boundaries and breaks the rules of nature, using wit, mischief, language and 'serious play' to invert power relationships, or reveal the flaws of a particular system. Artists on exhibit will include Lester Adams, Carlos Aires, Alan Alborough, Rotimi Fanye-Kayode, Samson Mudzunga, Nandipha Mntambo, Michael MacGarry and others.
'Perfect Lovers' opens in late February, and takes its name from the renowned Felix Gonzales-Torres piece Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1991, which is on one hand a powerful comment on the mortal limits of love and the ever-present proximity of death to life; and on the other a wry comment on the impossibility of the 'authentic' object. This exhibition undertakes an exploration into works that embrace the complex duality inherent in any relationship: presence/absence, Eros/Thanatos, beauty/ugliness.
While the shows noted above are on, I will be working on other events, including Art Extra's presence on the Jo'burg Art Fair, several smaller curated shows, and a short film programme.
MS: Curatorially speaking, do you start with a concept for your group shows, or do you begin with a list of artists that you'd like to curate together?
DB: While I try to stay informed about a large range of work, obviously there is a group of artists whose work I follow more closely than others, and while these names surely come to mind when thinking through a show, I try as much as possible to work directly from a theme or concept for a show - the artists have to fit the theme. But it is also true that the more you follow an artist, the more you can identify (or extrapolate - that dangerous game) themes within their work that may allow them to be part of many more shows.
MS: The Jozi commercial gallery scene is quite stratified in terms of market segmentation: on one side you've got the very established Everard Read, Goodman Gallery and Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art with highly evolved senses of their market positions; on the other side you've got newer spaces like Gordart, David Krut Projects and Rooke Gallery with more fluid commercial approaches. Where do you think Art Extra fits in, and how do you propose to get that right?
DB: Mmm... tough. Ask me again in a year from now; and then five years from now, and perhaps I'll have a reasonable answer. Basically though, my approach is focused on sustaining a long-term presence - I would like the gallery to 'grow into itself' as it were, to develop its unique position within the local and international scene.
MS: There is a strip of galleries in that Parkwood/Parktown North area that includes the like of Gallery Momo, Everard Read, Goodman Gallery, David Krut Projects and Warren Siebrits. I've even heard of a few other gallerists that are making moves to enter that geographical location. Why did you make the decision not to locate yourself in this context?
DB: There are several factors: I was looking for a space that allowed me a certain degree of flexibility with shows; I believe that the type of gallery I am trying to establish will never be a huge 'passing trade' space, but will more than likely be a destination space, where curators, collectors and audiences will make an effort to view shows. I also felt it was important to set up a space that was not comfortably, easily located within the increasingly gentrified Parkwood/Parktown North area. So while the gallery is less than five minutes drive from the 'heart' of gallery-land, the location further West feels, at least for me, to be accessible, but perhaps slightly less predictable.
MS: Finally, when you shift from your first four group shows into a phase of having solo shows, what sort of artists are you going to be considering? Can you give us any names?
DB: I am currently in discussions with several artists, including Reshma Chiba, Lawrence Lemoana, and Athi-Patra Ruga.
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