Systems and Structures: Joanna Szupinska-Myers at the California Museum of Photography
Joanna Szupinska-Myers has had a successful homecoming since returning to the Southern California region. Szupinska-Myers, a Santa Monica native, began her position as Curator of Exhibitions at the California Museum of Photography (CMP), which is a part of the UCR ARTSblock in January 2013. She had earned her Master of Arts degree in Curatorial Practice from the California College of the Arts in the Bay Area. Afterward she received the Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago, where she worked with chief curator Michael Darling. She returned to the Bay Area to act as a curatorial assistant to Jens Hoffmann, who at the time was the director of The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts and is now the Deputy Director of The Jewish Museum in New York. The experience working with both curators had a tremendous influence on Szupinska-Myers and prepared her for the position she currently occupies.
One technique that Szupinska-Myers gained from both curators is setting up conceptual systems and structures to work around. There are, for example, the three C’s that stand for Contemporary Art (that deals with photography), the Collection (The CMP houses a vast collection of vintage photographs and photographic materials) and Collaboration (with various departments from the UCR campus). “I try to hit one or two of those objectives with each show”, Szupinska-Myers stated during a conversation. Systems and structures are fundamental to a successful curatorial vision because without them curation can be akin to stumbling in the dark. Without defining a theme to an exhibition the exhibit runs the risk of becoming an unorganized mess, or, an argument without a point. Within the structure you are allowed complete freedom and flexibility. As Szupinska-Myers emphatically underlined, “Within a system, you get to break all the rules that you just set up, and with that, you get to surprise your audience too. But if there is no system, you can’t surprise anyone and you can’t meet their expectations either. There’s no play.”
Szupinska-Myers’ guiding philosophy has already begun to have an impact on the exhibitions at the CMP ARTSblock. There have been a number of exciting recent shows that she has been responsible for. The Flash! contemporary art series is the first that she introduced. Each show in the Flash! series consists of a single artwork that had been created within the year, shown in a small room on the third floor where the displays are rotated approximately every three months. The series’ double entendre title and location (the third floor room is architecturally designed to be its “flash” located next to the building’s camera obscura) plays into Szupinska-Myers’ systems while providing a project room for artists to test out new works and for audiences to know what to expect when entering the space.
Trouble with the Index was a sensational group show that included local photographic luminaries John Divola and James Welling, along with younger mid-career artists Mario Ybarra Jr., Jennifer West and Matthew Brandt. This show was the first in a trilogy of exhibitions that was inspired by three academic texts. “I wanted to tackle this question of abstraction in photography, and what it means for a picture to be abstract, even as it is also a true photograph.” Szupinska-Myers stated, “We’re a university gallery, so I broke it down into three key texts that were important to me as an undergrad. With Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America 1 & 2 by Rosalind Krauss serving as a stimulus for the first exhibition in the series, the next show will be stirred by Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviewsby Michael M. Fried and the third will conclude with The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin. Szupinska-Myers’ use of text as a starting point for an exhibition is another example of her ‘systems and structures’ method to curating.
If these shows weren’t enough work, Szupinska-Myers along with the neighboring Sweeney Gallery and several colleagues from UCR received a Getty grant as part of the next Pacific Standard Time to create a science fiction show in 2017. She explains, “We’re working on a show called Critical Utopias that will look at the art of Latin American and Latino artists dealing with futurist science fictions themes.” The UCR library houses the largest collection of publically accessible science fiction and fantasy including pulp novels, posters, ephemera and zines. She continues, “Right now we’re busy doing a lot of travel as part of the exciting research phase.”
Szupinska-Myers’ excitement is infectious, especially when she is speaking about art institutions, “We think of institutions as these things that happen top-down, and certainly sometimes they are, but when you look at the history of many institutions you so often find that it was just a bunch of people — a bunch of people who wanted to create something different or new.” The MCA was started with a group of volunteers and interested patrons of art who felt the Art Institute wasn’t for them and The California Museum of Photography was founded to explore the photographic medium through exhibitions, their collection, and publications. The California Museum of Photography as an institution has benefited from Joanna Szupinska-Myers’ system based curatorial practice and youthful excitement.