Dec 8, 2011

Interview with a Curator : Josh Usmani on "Controversy"

What job is harder than herding cats? Why it's curating an art show, of course! And artist Josh Usmani boldly crosses over from being an artist to a curator with ease. His first curated show, Controversy  opens for one night only on Saturday, December 10th at The Zaller Gallery.
Josh graciously took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about the show and the arts in Cleveland.

Wall Eye: Controversy is your first curated show. Where did the idea come from? And how has the experience been?
Josh Usmani: I was researching the 1913 "Armory Show" for Museum Studies at Cleveland State last spring.  I was intrigued when it became clear the success of that show in terms of visitors, exposure, longevity and dollars was based in large part to the negative press the show received before opening to the public.  I'd always had the idea for "Controversy" in the back of my head if I ever curated a show, but the Armory Show made it seem more realistic.  A month or two later I was approached by Dave Desimone* about potentially curating a show at Zaller.  Controversy was the first and only idea I pitched.  It's funny how these events poetically align. I think it's a perfect time for Controversy too.  Today, the internet allows the masses access to unprecedented, once unimaginable amounts of information, yet some people are so blinded by highly polished propaganda the truth itself offends them.  I believe true art is capable of both enlightening and agitating while still being universally effective and aesthetically pleasing.  This thought-provoking quality is at the heart of Controversy.

It sounds cliché, but the whole experience has been a dream come true.  Zaller is a DIY space that offers curators a venue to work our magic.  It's a lot of work, but I have total creative freedom, which is incredibly important, especially with this show.  I don't know what's happening with the space after my show, but I really hope something like this can exist in Cleveland for a long time. There aren't very many places on Earth like Zaller.

WE: Any notable pieces in the show?
JU: So many!  With over two dozen artists in the show it's hard to single any out.  Plus, I'm actually still waiting on some...Like Semiotext's stuff coming from Sweden.  It's going to be his first show in the US.  With over two dozen artists in Controversy, I was careful to select artists I trust because most chose to produce new work that I hadn't seen.  There have been a lot of very pleasant surprises.  I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice it to say that I'm VERY excited about this show!  The established artists blew me away. as I suspected they would, but I think a lot of people will be surprised by a lot of the artists they haven't encountered previously...Which is part of my job as curator. I can't thank the artists enough.  It's going to be a really cool show.  I should mention Douglas Max Utter and Justin Roberts since they're not on the flyer and both really great artists.  Douglas Max Utter had a solo exhibition at William Busta gallery recently and Justin Roberts did all the album artwork for Simeon Soul Charger's "Meet Me in the After Life".  Simeon Soul Charger is an amazing rock band from Akron currently touring in Europe for over a year.  Justin often does live paintings during concerts.  He was painting at Ingenuity Fest recently.

WE: Douglas Max Utter?!** Nice! How did you choose the artists for the show? Was it your intention to choose heavy hitters like Douglas and artists people may not have heard of?

JU: My goal has been to keep the show as diverse as possible.  I approached artists of all different backgrounds searching for as many perspectives on the subject as possible. Controversy features artists of different gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, education, age, etc..  I also approached a few art educators (Art Ed. majors, art teachers and my own professors) to get their take on the subject.  I think the show has a really nice balance to it.

WE: Having experience on both sides of a show (curator/organizer and artist), do you like one more than the other?
JU: I'm definitely an artist first-and-foremost, but I genuinely love curating and working on exhibitions.  Like I said, it's a lot of work, but it's so worth it!  I've been lucky enough to organize a few exhibitions at Cleveland State in the past few years and people like Robert Thurmer, Russ Revock and Linda Herman have been instrumental in nurturing my curatorial side at CSU.  My family doesn't spend a lot of energy on art.  I never went to art museums or galleries with my parents, so I feel like I've been exposed to a whole new world recently.  I always preach "Cooperation not Competition" to my artist-friends.  I want to help build a bigger, stronger arts community in Cleveland and this show allows me to do that by exposing new, young artists and bringing lots of different people together and giving them plenty to talk about.  I haven't made a lot of art lately, so I'm looking forward to getting back to it next year, but organizing Controversy has allowed me to focus my energy on something bigger than myself.

WE: I like that, "Cooperation not Competition"! What do you feel more in the Cleveland art community: cooperation or competition?
JU: Honestly, I see a lot of cooperation amongst the artists I've met.  I see a lot of opportunity to expand the networking and communication amongst the arts community in Cleveland, but the people themselves are really great and a lot of the work made here deserves more attention than its getting.  I think the really competitive artists are probably the first to leave town for greener pastures...Or go into graphic design (Just kidding, graphic designers).  We can make all the art we want alone, but if we want a thriving arts community in Cleveland it's going to take each and every one of us.

WE: You've been pretty busy with participating in shows and even having a solo show back in August, and now Controversy. What's next for you?
JU: Yeah, I'm making up for the 3 years I wasn't drawing.  I was out of school for 5 years trying to find a "responsible" job I loved as much as art.  Obviously that didn't work out.  I have a year and a half at Cleveland State before I graduate. I just organized a small exhibition of student work in Gallery B at CSU to accent the alumni show currently hanging in the main gallery.  I'm the President of the Student Organization of Fine Art (SOFA) and the Undergraduate Representative on CSU's Gallery Panel, so I'll be starting preparations for our annual spring Student Show and Merit Scholar Show soon.  The next shows I'll be participating in are the "Fifty Dolla Holladay Sale" at Breakneck Gallery (December 17th) and "Studio Skateboard" a group skate deck art exhibition at the Sandusky Cultural Center (opening January 8th).  I plan to make a lot more art next year and keep trying to participate in as many exhibitions and events as possible.  I'd love to curate another big group show like this.  Nothing's planned yet, but you never know what's coming around the next corner.     
 --
Thanks, Josh! 

Remember that Controversy is one night only on Saturday, December 10th from 5:00pm-11:00pm at The Zaller Gallery at 16008 Waterloo Rd in Cleveland. 


[*Editor's note: Wall Eye ♥s Dave Desimone.]
[**Another Editor's Note: In case it isn't obvious, Wall Eye ♥s Douglas Max Utter too.]
[One more note, I swear: Wall Eye's own Joe Ayala and Dante Rodriguez are artists in the show as well!]

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