In a small room in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s original building, Alison Saar’s 2007 sculpture of a woman in the fetal position sits curled up on the floor. Long, craggy tree roots extend from her feet where her toes should be, emphasizing the connection between the female form and the natural world.
Nearby, another sculpture by Kiki Smith depicts a deer giving birth to a fully grown woman resembling the classical figure of Diana – an even more jarring illustration of the same concept. And in another room, a ghostly figure by Janine Antoni draped in semi-translucent cowhide seems to crawl along the floor.
Walking through the exhibition, “Another One: Spiderlike, I Spin Mirrors,” an exploration of work by female artists over the past quarter-century, feels like wandering around inside someone else’s dream. In this case, the dream belongs to Albright-Knox curator Holly E. Hughes, who takes an unusually personal approach to the exhibitions she organizes.
“While I was working on the show, I was pregnant with my second child. I was thinking about the body, the skin, and also having conversations with my friends who had chosen not to be mothers,” Hughes said last week on her first day back from leave. “I was thinking about nurturing a lot, and a lot of this was being done between 12 midnight and 3 a.m. I think that the show is a lot stronger because it was coming from that point.”
Other curators might have taken a more dispassionate or clinical approach, making sure to hit every important mark on the art history timeline. But Hughes, who seems to trust her own imagination more than most other curators working in American museums, decided to take a much more personal tack.
The result is a highly idiosyncratic exhibition clearly inspired by Hughes’ own ideas about the nature of womanhood, the female body, the seemingly genetic impulse to nurture. It is alternately unsettling and perception-altering in the way the theory-drenched exhibitions that appear in many galleries and museums rarely are.
In an increasingly homogenous American museum culture, the collections of distant institutions have in many ways come resemble one another. So it’s refreshing and deeply heartening to see such an idiosyncratic approach to exhibitions, one fueled more by personal experiences than a preoccupation with art historical “correctness.”
The first Hughes show I saw, a look at the gallery’s recent acquisitions in photography, was inspired in part by a dream she’d had while putting the show together. Another used a Tori Amos lyric as a jumping-off point into artists’ considerations of our place in the universe.
“I would say that it’s more of an artistic approach, an approach that’s open to dream, to imagination, something less analytical, less art-historical and more intuitive,” said Albright-Knox chief curator Douglas Dreishpoon, whose leaner, cleaner and more academic approach to exhibitions has its own virtues. “I think it’s a great benefit to be able to work that way and to trust your intuition like that. It adds another dimension to the curatorial mindset, because it’s not based on the rigors of the discipline. It comes from a different place in the brain.”
Indeed, walking through a Hughes exhibition – whether on photography, female artists or our place in the cosmos – can feel like ambling through a particularly fascinating part of the curator’s brain. Her shows can sometimes seem like dreams projected onto dreams, with occasional and graceful descents into the concrete world.
An exhibition, after all, is nothing more than a bunch of synapses firing off ideas. The more directly a curator connects those ideas to real life, rather than the specific place a painting occupies in art history or its theoretical underpinnings, the better chance the exhibition has of flipping on new switches in viewers’ heads.
Art museums serve as portals to other realms, windows into the minds of our greatest thinkers. So it stands to reason that a deeply personal approach to curation often translates to a more personal and memorable experience for the audience.