Among James Surls’ favorite activities, apart from sculpting and drawing, is curating.
“It’s an endorphin rush. Once you have it, you keep returning to the well,” said Surls, who has lived in the valley for 15 years and now resides and works in Missouri Heights. “I love curating shows because I love looking at art.”
On Surls’ resume, in addition to exhibiting his own work in museums from New York to Amsterdam to his native Texas, are two shows he has curated that focused on the work of his fellow Roaring Fork Valley artists.
“Finding Balance,” which spotlighted how gender forces influence art, showed at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft in 2007. (Surls badly wanted to bring the exhibition to Aspen, but was unable to.)
“Giving and Receiving,” which brought together work by valley artists and by Chinese artists, was presented at the National Museum of China in Beijing and on the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado.
Once again, Surls is curating — “This is getting to dance in the stew,” as he puts it — and once again, the focus is the community of artists who Surls calls his neighbors. Surls is serving as guest curator of the Aspen Art Museum’s biennial Roaring Fork Open, which opens with a reception tonight. This time, Surls was looking not just at art, but also examining the people who made the art — the 125 local artists who brought their work to the Art Museum for Surls to consider and comment on.
“It gave me the opportunity to look 130 artists in the eye and really get a connection with their reality check on life and their work. I was getting their intent,” Surls said. “I’ve always thought that the idea of art is the search for self. They make art in their own likeness, within their own aesthetics. That’s what makes it theirs, puts their DNA stamp on it. That’s what makes a Picasso a Picasso.”
Surls understood going in that his job as guest curator was not to find the next Picasso, or even to spotlight the artists who might have high-level careers in making art ahead of them. “This is not about getting to the Whitney. They know that,” Surls said, while being highly complimentary of the art in general. (“I could pick out 10 artists and do a really good, honed-down show. Or three artists for a three-artist show — man, there would be some good shows there.”) To Surls, the purpose of the Roaring Fork Open is to encourage artists to find and sharpen their means of expression.
“It can be a not-great painting,” he said, “but still have some deep psychological ramifications for the person who made it. It is personal. If you’re judging something purely on design — you can do that, the aesthetics of rhymes and harmonies and balance, all that grad-school jargon. But when you’re talking to the artists, you see it has absolute meaning for them. They’re serious about it.”
The curating process for the Roaring Fork Open had Surls at the museum for three days, beginning at 9 a.m. Artists were signed up for 10-minute slots to bring in as many as three of their pieces for Surls to consider. Surls expected the participants to focus on the relative merits of the pieces they brought, and get input on which piece they should include in the exhibition. He found that the artists were far more likely to speak about process and meaning.
“They’d start talking about the content of the work: ‘This painting is personal for this reason,’” Surls said. “I quickly realized — as I already knew — that people in this business go to the personal. They go to the content, the meaning, and then quickly to their story. I found it quite rewarding.”
Surls came away impressed not only by the artists’ sense of purpose, but also by the Art Museum’s handling of the exhibition and its participants. He said the museum staff was systematic and professional, but also seemed to understand that not all the participants were full-time artists familiar with the process. He approved of the fact that participants who were even hours late for their appointments were accommodated.
Surls, who has earned international attention, especially for his steel-and-wood sculptures, was likewise gentle in handling the artists, especially in light of how personal the work was. “That’s serious business,” he said. “When you’re talking to people about this stuff, you’ve got to tread lightly. You don’t know the damage that’s possible in that conversation. I would never put the axe to that.”
Surls sees his purpose as boosting the artists, and even the valley’s visual arts community, in their efforts. “The reality for me is to elevate them — see how they can grow, that they should keep doing it,” he said. “The purpose is that the community rises to a moment with what we as the community consider their best shot.”
Surls finds it appropriate to the occasion that the Art Museum, the artists and Surls himself put such care into the exhibition. He doesn’t see an exhibition dedicated to local artists as a lightweight pursuit, or even a straying from the purpose of presenting provocative art.
“It may be the most valuable thing the Aspen Art Museum can do in making a gesture to the community at large,” he said. “It’s damn important.”
The Roaring Fork Open has an opening reception at 6 tonight at the Aspen Art Museum. Guest curator James Surls will lead a walk-through from 6-6:30, focusing on a handful of pieces. The Roaring Fork Open runs through Oct. 27.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum will present the Local Taste of Art series. Each Saturday during the exhibition, from 5-6 p.m., local chefs will serve dishes inspired by the artwork.