Social Geographies of the Art World
Katie Johnson ’13 and Faculty Mentor Leisa Rundquist Form Curatorial Team
“What captures everybody is that his work is visually stunning – it’s incredibly dynamic and lyrical,” said Katie Johnson ’13 about artist Thornton Dial, as she watched his creations being installed under her direction at the Asheville Art Museum.
Johnson’s fascination with Dial and other African Diaspora artists, and her path toward curation, began in a class taught by Associate Professor of Art History Leisa Rundquist and blossomed into a multi-year collaboration between the two. The fruit of that effort is a new major exhibition at the Asheville Art Museum, Social Geographies: Interpreting Space and Place, which features works by Dial and five other so-called “outsider” and self-taught artists.
Rundquist is the exhibition’s curator, and she says Johnson’s role has gone far beyond her official title of research assistant. “I worked on ideas for the exhibition for six months, but it really began in earnest with Katie’s involvement,” said Rundquist. “We talked conceptually about what the show would be like, and when she received an Undergraduate Research Grant, we traveled together to the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. She interviewed collectors, scholars and gallery dealers.”
Rundquist and Johnson selected the works for the exhibition, but that was just the starting point. “Some places automatically say yes, we will loan you this work of art, and some places, you have to convince,” said Rundquist. “Katie was really instrumental. She has been the primary liaison with the lenders and did all the logistics and securing of intellectual property rights. She embraced it all and said ‘I want to know how to do this.’”
This collaboration “evolved from a typical mode at UNC Asheville,” according to Johnson. “You take a class with someone, they become your mentor, and you end up working with them. I became a peer mentor for one of Leisa’s courses and ended up going for a minor in art history. She was my advisor for that … Beginning to create this exhibition for the Asheville Art Museum came together with my learning and her teaching.” UNC Asheville now offers a major in art history, and current students have an even greater opportunity for more focused study, research and experience.
The Social Geographies exhibit includes works by some of the most idiosyncratic artists America has produced, including Henry Darger, a Chicago recluse whose creations were only discovered shortly before his death, and George Widener of Hendersonville who once could be found drawing in Ramsey Library on campus and whose mathematically-themed works now sell for huge numbers at galleries at London and New York.
“The idea of Social Geographies is twofold,” said Rundquist. “These artists have been referred to as ‘outsiders’ or self-taught, and that places them on the margins of the art world. We’re trying to go beyond these modifiers and see these works as simply ‘art’ and find thematic connections. The other component of Social Geographies is that we’ve chosen artists that use landscape or maps or abstract grounds that reference the land as well as their socio-spacial relationship to it.“
Social Geographies will remain on exhibition through May 18. “It’s terrible when a show leaves,” said Rundquist. “You get very attached to the works.” Late spring also could bring Johnson’s departure from Asheville as she is planning on attending graduate school in California, Massachusetts, or perhaps, Chapel Hill. Her curatorial experience, and her selection as a recipient of one of the inaugural scholarship awards from the American Folk Art Society, should make her application stand out.
She remained in Asheville this post-graduation year, to see Social Geographies through to its end and to take her time choosing the best grad school fit. “Taking the year off allows perspective,” said Johnson. “With art history and curating, there are so many doors open.”
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