Thursday, July 24, 2008

Interview: New Yorker critic Vince Aletti on curating Male at Presentation House Gallery

Note: corrections have been made to this post; strikethroughs and italics indicate same. Apologies to the gallery and the curator for any misunderstanding.

Walk into almost any artists' studio and you'll see a wall of images torn from magazines and books relating to the work they most identify with at the moment. In writers' houses, the practice less common, but certainly not unheard of. This is especially the case with New Yorker photo critic Vince Aletti, whose collection of hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of images line the walls, shelves and desktops of his home. But now Canadians (at least those on the West Coast) are being granted a peek; Aletti recently curated an exhibition of some of his collection for the venerable photo-oriented Presentation House Gallery, which runs to August 3.

Though part of Aletti's collection was also shown in NY's White Columns earlier this year in the late 90s, this is the first time it's travelled to Canada. Aletti took some time on Monday to chat with me about his collection and the related show. The National Post ran a condensed interview today. Read on after the jump for more images and an extended transcript.

Image: Installation view of "Male: Work from the Collection of Vince Aletti" at Presentation House Gallery

The following is the edited transcript of a phone interview between New Yorker photo critic Vince Aletti and National Post arts freelancer Leah Sandals that took place Monday, July 21, 2008. The occasion for the interview was “Male: Work from the collection of Vince Aletti” which is at Presentation House Gallery in Vancouver until August 3, 2008.

LS: All of these photos are excerpted from your collection. How did that begin?

VA: I feel I’ve always been a collector and I think many kids start with little collections of stamps and other objects. That was one of my hobbies. But I’ve always leaned towards images rather than objects, possibly because my father was a committed amateur photographer and because he left behind a lot of photo books I grew up looking at and thinking a lot about. And when I came to New York in the 60s a number of my good friends were photographers. So photography became one way for me to focus my interest in images; mostly images of people and then very specifically images of men.

LS: Why men only?

VA: That’s kind of a bigger question than it sounds. It’s partly because I’m gay and men interest me and fascinate me in a way. And I can’t pretend as a guy to really understand other guys. I’ve always been interested in the way men are portrayed in the media and photography in general, and the way masculinity is dealt with and the varieties of masculinity. So it’s partly a fascination with what masculinity means these days and how it’s been constructed over the history of representation from art to photography, and trying to figure out kind of what it means to me, what I value in masculinity and what I question in it.

LS: Have you come to any conclusions about that?

VA: There’s a variety of things. I value male strength and reliability. But then, you know, that often, in one on one connections, becomes sort of a mess myth. And I think the same way any representation of women over the years have been hung up in various myths in terms of what feminine, the same is true of masculinity. So there’s certain things that I’m drawn to and yet I know some of that is more symbolic than real, or more mythologized than actual, and partly that’s why images work. I don’t think anyone takes a photograph at total face value any longer but I think there are lots of layers to be found in photography and that’s hopefully what I’m suggesting to [viewers].

LS: Can collecting be an art form in itself? How?

VA: You know a number of people talked to me about that at the opening in Vancouver. I have to say I haven’t really thought about that. I think an active and thoughtful collector is in a way a curator, someone who thinks about the collection as a whole, you know, piece by piece and also how things fit together. I don’t know that it’s an art form but I think it definitely is a talent. What I liked about putting together the show in Vancouver was the ability to layer the work in very literally in the show by having them build shelving that I could rest the work on and put things sort of one on top of the other as well as side by side. [It’s done] in a way that I think suggests more natural connections than might be obvious when things are just hung on the wall.

I’d shown images from my collection before in New York [at White Columns in 1998] but the Vancouver hanging was very different in some ways, just responding to the space and making the images relate to each other in a conversational way.

LS: Some of these photos are sexual… at least depending on the viewer! How would you handle a gallery goer who might be offended by them?

VA: I haven’t had that problem. I’m not sure… I think I would my first reaction would probably be to say I’m not forcing anyone to look at anything. And also if people are offended by the naked human body, I really find it beyond comprehension.

LS: Of course, women are nude in art all the time.

VA: Yes, it’s still the case that male nudity is treated very differently than female nudity over all these years. And I’m kind of determined to ignore that prohibition. I think it’s foolish and in any case the idea that you can’t see a full frontal male nude without it having to be covered it seems really archaic. I think these prohibitions only really apply to photography, not fine art or painting or sculpture or any other way. And I just can’t account for people’s prejudices or sensitivies.

LS: Some pragmatic questions: Where do you find photos? How many do you have? How many more do you buy every year?

VA: Well, I started buying photos very casually when they were much more inexpensive. I still buy a lot of photos at flea markets and tag sales and all sorts of fairs that sell snapshots and photo postcards and things like that. I by a lot of work on eBay now but the large part of established photographers in the show I bought at galleries or benefit auctions and from places that were trying to raise money for one cause or another.

I bought a lot of work in this show in particular at student shows in New York. I’ve been a mentor at School of the Visual Arts here in New York and a number of times I’ve bought work out of their graduating seniors’ show and a lot of that is among my favourite pictures. So there’s a broad range of materials from very well known and very established artists to young photographers just starting out and it’s important for me to have them all together and not make big distinctions among them.

LS: Why?

VA: Because I do think that some of the best pictures I have are by unknown people or very little known people. And one of the things that interests me about photography is the sense—which I think that more and more people are getting into—that the author is not always the key thing, it’s the image. And so I do think I’m as excicted by an anonymous photo that is terrific as I am by something by Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, and I do think it’s important for people to appreciate the image before they look at the author. And so that’s part of my interest.

LS: And how many do you think you have?

VA: I haven’t kept count because a lot of what I have are very small snapshot size pictures and I probably have hundreds of those in addition to the maybe 200 or 300 pieces by authors with names. So I don’t know, I’d hesitate to come up with a figure because it’s bound to be way off. But I am constantly collecting pictures. I’m sitting at my desk right now with pictures I got over the last two months that are almost 100 just small snapshot things from all different periods. None of which cost me more than $40. So those are the pictures that I in a way find most interesting. I’m always happy to be able to afford something by a more established artist, but I’m not unhappy if I can keep my small anonymous things.

LS: Which is your favourite photograph? Does it change?

VA: I have a group of favourites, in a way, in that one photographer, Peter Hujar, was a very close friend of mine. He died in 1987 and his self portrait is one of my favourite pictures. He also took a number of pictures of good friends of mine, many of whom have also died, and all those pictures are especially important to me. They’re the ones I gave prime places in the show and key places in my house. They are more personal than many of the images in my collection, and very important to me.

LS: What challenges have you encountered spending decades as a critic and recently getting into the activity of creating exhibitions yourself?

VA: I’m not sure exactly what you mean. But I have over the years curated a number of shows. This is the first time I’ve curated a show from my own collection. To me the act of curating seems a logical extension of being a critic, of wanting to show the work that I’m excited about or create a context for a work that I’m excited about.

I really feel that it’s a logical extension for a critic to curate work. This is the first time that I’ve done it from my own collection. But I think it’s always been a way for me to juxtapose images and create a conversation for photographers.

LS: What comes after this?

VA: After the show leaves Vancouver it comes back to my house. I have no other plans for it. This is really the first time it’s been away from my house. I’d love to continue travelling it if other places want it. But for now I’m working on another series of curated shows for the ICP [International Center for Photography], things not to do with my own collection. One show is a big Richard Avedon fashion retrospective that will open there next May 2009. And a number of other fashion photo related shows.

LS: Well, good luck with the show thanks for taking time to speak with me.

VA: You’re welcome. Thanks for your interest.

Image credits (top to bottom)

Weegee, Untitled [man sleeping on bench], c. 1940
Installation shot, "Male" 2008 Presentation House Gallery, Vancouver
Jim Hamilton, [Coney Island gang member], 1977
Don Whitman (Western Photography Guild), c. 1955

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