Aspen curator judges for himself
August 14, 2008
ASPEN ” Matthew Thompson always knew he wouldn’t follow five previous generations of Thompson men and become a judge in the San Diego area. It took half of one class session at Columbia to convince him that his first career choice ” film critic/theorist ” wasn’t going to pan out, either.
And if he hadn’t already been persuaded that career choice No. 2 ” sculptor ” was the wrong track, his stint as an ice sculptor, carving geese for hotel brunch buffets, closed that door.
“I think being in a freezer eight hours a day might have had something to do with it,” Thompson said of deciding not to be an artist, even after earning his undergraduate degree in visual arts.
In graduate school at UCLA, he got it right. Thompson’s master’s degree in art came with a specialization in critical and curatorial studies.
“I was thinking a lot about what attracted me to art,” he said. “I realized I loved writing about art, thinking about art, coordinating projects. I liked all these things other than making art.”
Those interests were sustained as Thompson moved beyond the classroom. After a graduate internship at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, he interviewed for the job as assistant curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. He was crushed when he didn’t get the job amid a shuffle in the museum’s leadership.
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But the outgoing Berkeley curator called a few months later, inviting Thompson to apply for an assistant curator position at her new place of work ” the Aspen Art Museum. Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson hired Thompson as her right hand in Aspen, and Thompson has found a niche that seems unlikely to have happened with a judgeship, in film or with a chisel.
“It’s more than passion,” said the 28-year-old Thompson, named last week as the museum’s associate curator. “It’s desire, desire to be working with artists on projects. And that’s for better or for worse. It helps me a lot, especially with larger projects. But it’s also like a compulsion, almost.”
He noted that his promotion affects his status in the art world more than his responsibilities at the museum. But it also coincides with Thursday’s opening of a new exhibition, Unknown Pleasures, that Thompson curated, and which Zuckerman Jacobson says is his most significant curatorial effort yet. The reception begins at 6 p.m.
Unknown Pleasures, a group exhibition that runs through Oct. 19 in the upper gallery, examines links between contemporary art and music. On the surface, that is a fairly obvious subject for an exhibition; in fact, the Aspen Art Museum explored similar territory earlier this year, with Jeremy Deller’s installation “Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, and Me,” which used rocker Neil Young as a springboard to address themes of cultural genocide and the environment.
But Thompson slices one piece out of the emotional spectrum ” melancholy ” and takes a multi-faceted look at how it is manifested in the art-music axis.
“What I was interested in was teasing out the nuances,” he said.
“What does it mean to use music in a work? Why are we attracted to sad songs? What is it about that experience we’re attached to, and is there an analogous experience in contemporary art?”
Visitors can get an earful before they reach the museum doors. Susan Philipsz’ “Long Gone,” mounted on the footbridge leading to the museum, is an audio work, featuring the artist singing a plaintive, unadorned version of the Syd Barrett song. In the gallery are such works as “Cannon Falls (Cobain Room),” Melanie Schiff’s photo diptych of a naked woman, her head turned down, standing in a doorway. The color scheme of the room is severely muted; on a less obvious note, the room is rumored to be where the late Kurt Cobain stayed while Nirvana recorded “In Utero.” “Happy Sad,” a photo by Anne Collier, depicts the cover to the 1969 album by famously disillusioned singer Tim Buckley.
And Neil Young makes a return visit in Tim Lee’s “My My, Hey Hey.” Another photo diptych, it plays with issues raised by Young’s 1979 album, “Rust Never Sleeps,” including the subject of artistic daring.
“How much should one worry about the audience?” said Thompson, framing those issues. “What is the stance when you stand at the edge of a cliff and make this artistic leap? It’s like an exploration into the unknown.”