When I was five, my mom told me about a friend of hers whose mother-in-law died on road trip through Arizona. They wrapped her body in a sleeping bag and put her on the roof of the car to transport back home for a decent funeral. The family stopped at cafe, and the car was stolen. An urban legend. Weirdly, decades, later my (dead) mom’s ashes were stolen from the backseat of my car by a valet–a full circle, as a version of the legend became reality.
Urban legends like “He likes it, hey Mikey” dying after guzzled Coca-Cola and Pop Rocks, alligators in the sewers of New York, the Hook, and microwaved pets present cautionary tales that reflect ongoing cultural taboos and fears–gluttony, jealousy, ghosts, murders, death, maiming, sexual adventures gone wrong–that serve to remind us of the uncertainty of existence.
“Hearsay: Artists Reveal Urban Legends” takes the viewer into our modern collective collective unconsciousness with thought provoking wit and a pop-culture double whammy. Featuring 35 artists like Robert Williams, Llyn Foulkes, Marnie Weber, Jim Shaw, Jeffrey Vallance, Laurie Lipton (whose beautiful drawing reveals the truth of one Los Angeles’ most enduring and horrifying creatures, about which many urban legends swirl), and Nicola Verlato. The artists don’t simply illustrate urban legends, these modern day myth are analyzed in conjunction with each artist’s own subjective viewpoint resulting in a shared experience between artist and audience.
“Hearsay,” at Cal State Fullerton’s Begovich Gallery, with an opening reception April 12th, is curated by Lauren Haisch and Cartwheel Art contributor Wendy Sherman. The opening is from 5pm to 8pm, with a curators’s tour at 4pm.
Wendy took time out from installing the show to email with us about “Hearsay,” the challenges and excitement of curating such a major show, and the MFA program in exhibition design and museum studies at CSUF.
Tell us about what’s in the show and what we can expect…
I don’t want to give away too much! As far as medium, it’s pretty much figurative work, but the exhibition includes painting and drawing, photography, sculpture, and video. If you are familiar with urban legends, you will recognize a lot of the stories. We will be including didactic text with the artwork and the artist’s writing about the work. There will also be some regional legends and a few that are probably not very well known. We had each artist choose their own legend because we wanted the story to have a personal meaning to them, so we got a wide range of interesting stories from all over the place. Lots of ghost stories – actually about half of the gallery is ghost stories. Which is weird because urban legends are supposed to be “real world” occurrences. But I guess they fall into the category of ghost stories that take place in an urban environment.
About half the exhibition is made up of commissioned artwork that was created especially for the show. The rest of the art already existed and fit the topic. As you can imagine, it was pretty hard to find artists working with this subject matter, but there are a few – Robert Williams, Jeffrey Vallance, Burt Payne 3, Clayton Bailey, Jim Shaw… but it was really hard to find women artists. Naida Osline is perfect–Laurie Hasshold was totally into the concept, even though if you look at her work, you wouldn’t necessarily think of her as an “urban legends” artist. It relates to the cryptozoology theme that runs through her work. Laurie Hasshold has created two pieces especially for this exhibition. I can’t wait–it’s going to be like Christmas seeing all the final art coming in! I guess that will be another high point!
Why this theme? What drew you to it?
Well, it was a compromise! Sort of. I had a billion ideas and I had tried to talk fellow exhibition design student and co-curator, Lauren Haisch into an idea that I don’t think she really wanted to do. So she suggested we do a show on the theme of myth. We started doing research and I found that it was really a huge subject that had been covered many times. There have been tons of exhibitions on the topic of myth. I mean, I liked the idea, but I felt like it had been done before – and done better than I could ever do it! I found a current exhibition (at the time) that was so good – it even included some of the artists we were thinking of showing!
As I plugged away, trying to find an aspect of myth that I thought I could work with, I found an article that started talking about “urban myths” and “urban legends” and I thought, that’s it!! I have always been a huge fan of urban legends. Although we found out early on that “urban myths” and “urban legends” are NOT the same thing. An urban legend is rooted in folklore – it’s a story that is passed on from person to person (a friend of a friend or f.o.a.f.), with the person telling it believing it to be true, but the story is almost always not true. They are primarily non-supernatural, secular narratives that take place in the present day real world. While an urban myth is a well known story which was made up in the past to explain natural events or to justify religious beliefs or social customs and usually involves the existence and activities of a supernatural being, such as a god, a demigod, a goddess, or several such entities.
I had discovered the books of author and urban legends expert Jan Harold Brunvand in the early 1980s after I was fooled by an urban legend that I saw in the newspaper. After all, if you read about it in the newspaper, it must be true, right? I became a huge fan of Brunvand’s books and read most of them – he’s published about ten books on the subject and pretty much coined the term “urban legend.”
I love the idea of these stories that sound “too good to be true.” Actually a few of them end up being true, or the legend is just an exaggerated version of the truth. I love that many of them have been passed on from ancient folklore and just keep coming around and morphing as modern life continues to advance. A good example of this is the legend “The Microwaved Pet” (represented in the exhibition), which became popular in the 1970s as people started buying microwave ovens, and there was fear surrounding this new technology. But this tale has been around since the 1940s, if not earlier, when people were worried about their pets crawling into their old gas or wood stoves to keep warm! (editor’s note: Unfortunately, because people are unspeakable jerks, microwaved pets do occur]
And, of course, urban legends have exploded since the expansion of the internet, and now that everyone has a computer and a smart phone. Not only in text form, but in photographic form – there are Photoshopped images popping up everywhere illustrating new urban legends every minute of every day. Good thing we have web sites like Snopes.com to tell us which stories are real & which ones are fake!
How did you come to curate a show at Begovich Gallery?
I’m a grad student in the MFA program in exhibition design and museum studies at Cal State University, Fullerton. As part of the MFA degree, each student must produce a thesis exhibition. If you are getting a degree in painting and drawing you must produce an exhibition of your own work. Exhibition design students are usually required to pair up and co-curate exhibitions for the larger Begovich gallery. (There are also three smaller galleries for painting and drawing, sculpture, and photography students to show their work.)
What is involved in the master’s program you are completing?
Some of the required courses are: museum education, curatorship, conservation, four semesters of exhibition design, and art history classes. I took as many art history classes as I could–history of photography, history of illustration, contemporary art history, etc. I was a grad assistant for the graphic design history class because of my background in graphic design. (I did my BA in Graphic Design at CalArts a long time ago!). Right now I am taking an art theory class, where we read a bunch of essays on art theory and sit around and discuss them in class for two and a half hours trying to figure out what they are talking about! So far we’ve read Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Amelia Jones, and Lucy Lippard–who I really like. Art Theory is not my favorite, but I figure it will look good on my resume!
Why did you choose this discipline?
After a 20+ year career as a graphic designer I was involved in an art exhibition at the Robert Berman Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. I worked very closely with the curator and got to see what goes on behind the scenes at an established art gallery. I had an epiphany–I guess–or a light bulb went off. I thought, “This is what I want to do!” I became really interested in curating– basically deciding what artists to show and which pieces by each artist to show–it’s more than that, of course. The experience gave me many ideas. I felt like everything I had been working on up to that point in my life had prepared me to be a curator. It might sound weird, but I remember when I was in my first semester at CSUF in museum education class it hit home to me. I pretty much grew up at LACMA. I took art classes there when I was 6 years old. I always felt really comfortable at art museums. And as a graphic designer I worked on a lot of album cover projects, and that was like curating in a sense. You would put artists together–a photographer, an illustrator, a logo designer… It was kind of like curating. Plus, I had met a lot of museum quality artists and photographers over the years, being in the graphic design field.
What is involved in curating a show? (oh tell us some of the minutae!)
Okay, that’s huge…First you have to come up with an idea – or an artist (or artists) you want to show. It’s a lot easier if it’s just one or two artists. Then you just go on a studio visit and choose the art you want to show. I mean, it’s not THAT easy. You need to establish a relationship with the artist(s) and the gallery or museum, if you don’t own the gallery/museum or already work there.
Working with artists is tricky too. (A lot like working with rock stars – I’m finding out – after all those years of designing album covers! Good training!) I have been fortunate that I have had really good mentors… I guess I should mention that as well – find a good mentor! Networking and connections in this business are essential! (Also same as the music biz – both are very similar!) I will not mention who my mentors are – you need to find your own! [However, I will recommend Karen Atkinson's GYST workshops (gyst-ink.com) for artists and they are helpful for curators as well. Karen is great, she is my go-to person if I ever have any art world questions. She knows everything. But you have to take her workshop if you want access to her never ending fount of knowledge!]
With a concept/group show, the idea is important. (I will talk more about that below.) But once you figure out a good idea – it can come from anywhere – you can start with the artists you want to show and build the idea around their work, or start with the idea and find artists that fit – that’s what we did.
Then it’s studio visits and choosing art, or commissioning art for the show. Very tricky – dealing with artists! Can’t really help you with that, just have to learn by doing it. One thing to think about with a group show is that all the work goes together. I actually didn’t think about that too much because I had such a strong theme. It depends on what your theme is, where you are showing, and how many artists are in the show. If it’s a small sales gallery show with just 2-4 artists, you want all the art to look nice together so it will sell. If it’s a big, high-concept museum show (like mine!) it doesn’t really matter – the concept is the important thing. But the art has to be striking – it has to live up to the concept.
In the exhibition design program we are responsible for every tiny aspect of the exhibition, from cleaning the floor in the gallery to finding a food & drink sponsor for the reception. There is all kinds of boring stuff you have to do like writing a proposal, creating a budget, making a time line, assembling a layout for the show, building a model, developing a check list, sending out loan agreements, printing postcards, publicity & promotion, arranging pick ups for the work, painting the gallery, etc. You do not want to hear about all that stuff do you? I am in loan agreement/art pick up hell right now!!
Is that minutiae enough for you???
How long have you been working on the show?
My fellow exhibition design student and co-curator, Lauren Haisch and I have been working on this show for about three years now! That is not unusual, especially for a museum show.
What challenges have you faced?
Ummm, a lot! Actually the biggest one is–boring!–shipping costs! Well, money in general. There were a couple problems getting artwork that we wanted in the beginning. One of the reasons was the cost of shipping from NY to CA, and the other was due to the collections the art was coming from.
I really wanted this piece by Laurie Lipton titled “Watching,” which was based on the story of Kitty Genovese – an urban legend based on a true story. This one was an exaggeration of the true story. Look it up here on Snopes.
I thought the piece was owned by a collector in LA, but I found out it was sold to someone who lives in NY. It ended up being too costly to ship to the Begovich for the show, so we ended up choosing another piece by Laurie (you’ll have to come to the show to see it!).
We did commission an amazing piece by NY based artist Mike Cockrill, and I asked him to work small to try to avoid the shipping issue. But “small” for Mike ended up being 29″ x 40″–so I was tearing out my hair for a couple weeks trying to figure out how I was going to get his piece from NY to CA. We ended up working it out in the end. The problem isn’t so much the transportation cost as the insurance. You have to go with an art shipper in order to have the art insured. That’s what becomes costly.
The other problems had to do with acquiring the original paintings for two pieces where we ended up substituting prints. I absolutely HATED having to do that, but we had no choice. One of the pieces is by artist Llyn Foulkes, and as everyone in LA knows – all his work is on tour in Germany right now, so we have a print of one of his “Bloody Heads.” The other print is by Robert Williams, and it would have been too costly to ship – similar situation to the Lipton piece. But we had to have the Williams piece because it was such a great representation of the legend. And fortunately there was a print available. But as a rule you NEVER want to show prints in a museum show if the original work is a painting. It’s always best to get the original.
What have been some of the high points so far?
No. 1 absolute best thing has been working with Jan Harold Brunvand. As soon as Lauren and I agreed on the topic I got in touch with him. Since part of the exhibition from the beginning was to include a companion catalog, I knew I wanted to ask Brunvand if he would write an introduction. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when he accepted. He was also a huge help with vetting some of the legends that the artists would come up with to make sure they were actual urban legends and not myths or just weird stories. I had to send one artist back to the drawing board and I actually had to turn down another artist completely. But I felt that if we had Brunvand involved, we had to try to keep as true to the theme as possible. We did sneak a couple questionable gray-area topics in there like UFOs and cryptozoology, but I think Brunvand will approve of the exhibition overall.
I would say the No. 2 high point has been working with the artists. It has been great and also a pain in the ass at the same time! But mostly working with all the artists has been very rewarding. Oh, and the other writers who wrote essays for the catalog–amazing! So great of them to participate also.
I imagine the opening is going to be a blast. That’s where all your hard work pays off – but it always goes by so fast! And I’m looking forward to finishing up the catalog. I guess I should add that to the challenges list. I had really hoped to have the catalog ready for the opening reception, but it unfortunately wasn’t meant to be.
Hearsay: Artists Reveal Urban Legends
Through May 8th, opening reception April 12, 5pm to 8pm
Begovich Gallery, Cal State Fullerton
800 N. State College Blvd.
Fullerton, CA 92831-3599
For the curator walk through at 4pm on Saturday, please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
Nicola Verlato, Haunting of the Haunted Painting
Jeffrey Valance, Nixon Spirit House
Sarina Brewer, Purple Squirrel
Marnie Weber, The Procession
Church of Typography, Sasquatch
Chris Farling, Sewer Gator
Hellen Jo, The Red Mask
Llyn Foulkes, Bloody Head
Burt Payne 3 and Stephen Hillenburg, Frozen Walt Doll (Green Tie Edition)
Lew Delport, The Goatman
Laurie Hassold, what the tree remembers