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Observing a Curator’s Tour: Laing Gallery with Curator Amy Barker regarding her curation of Exposed: The Naked Portrait on 21st November 2018

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 11 Dec 2018, 15:19

Observing a Curator’s Tour: Laing Gallery with Curator Amy Barker regarding her curation of Exposed: The Naked Portrait on 21st November 2018

For Gallery information on curator-tour format click here. For more information on Exposed, click here.


The purpose of this reportage is to think about art-curatorship following a reading of O’Neill’s (2016:42ff) history of curatorial discourse since the late 1990s[1]. Charting a period now in decline when curation that took on the subject-position of the creative auteur curator-artist, it shows how curation now might now occupy the ‘critical space’ abandoned by art criticism. Curators were to become curator-auteur-critics, O’Neill quotes Liam Gillick:

My involvement in this critical space is a legacy of what happened when a semi-autonomous critical voice started to become weak. … The brightest, smartest people get involved in this multiple activity of being mediator, producer, interface and neo-critic. It is arguable that the most important essays about art over the last (10) years … have been … produced around galleries, art centres and exhibitions. (Cited ibid. p. 43.)

With this in mind I took myself  on a visit to hear the public tour (small fee over internet) by the curator of this exhibition, Amy Barker.  There is no catalogue for this exhibition (unfortunately). It is a reflexive and situated (in terms of the current holdings of the Laing) recuration of an original small exhibition (of 12 pieces only) by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). This meant that important works like Gilbert and George’s In the Piss took proximity to wonderful holdings in the Laing from Bloomsbury (contrasting nude males by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell for instance) that are part of the Laing’s glory.

There was however no sign of anything like full authorial control in Amy’s presentation, even though she made it plain that selection, grouping and ordering of works was both a curator’s responsibility and privilege. Descriptive schematisation of groupings and porous boundaries between the groupings was also continually asserted. Moreover, although Amy’s name never appears in the Galley material to indicate her ‘ownership/authorship’ (and I am not saying that is how Amy sees herself), it was her decision (no doubt subject to teamwork even at planning) to start the exhibition with Clark’s distinction between the ‘naked’ and the ‘nude’. This distinction is somewhat blurred however in the following sections. Moreover, there is some sense of the complexity of the way nude models were rejuvenated by new uses -  with the growth in the nineteenth-century, for instance, of nude models, especially ecorché (flayed) models, for the use of medical/anatomical study. 

Nevertheless there is a useful dialectic set up from Clark's loose distinction about the status of the nude as ‘art’ or something other, whether that be objective medical study, pornographic voyeurism or a philosophy of the human subject. The latter was favoured by artists such as Duncan Grant, whose attempt to balance eroticism, art and a philosophy of the ‘human’ is mentioned en passant in the labels to an oil portrait of the naked mountaineer, George Mallory (whom Grant also photographed (not though in this exhibition) much more suggestively) as a philosophy that linked sexuality to Praxiteles and Plato.

Hearing a curator is fascinating since one sees that statements about curators as critics primarily are always partial. Barker’s nuanced ‘talk’ showed her balancing equally important priorities including mediation between a ‘public’ gallery and a potentially censorious ‘public opinion’ about the limits of artistic representation (possibly tested most by Gilbert and George she felt) and the economic practicalities involved in the optimisation of the use of a Gallery’s own resources in exhibition-making. Curation is not an easy job under conditions of reduced spending of course and we do curators a disservice if we see them primarily as frustrated art critics. But critique there certainly is – at its most interesting in the comparison of how portraits are constituted between artist and sitter in Morley’s Christine Keeler photographs (for taste click here)  and how poses become means of creating a pose-stereotype that can be used critically (in reflexive re-use for a naked Joe Orton, Barry Humphries and a non-naked ‘Edna Everage’). These issues illustrate not only technical innovation in art but also the meaning of the exhibition’s title – what it means to be ‘exposed’ in terms of human publicity and vulnerability. Speaking of which one found oneself unable to take one’s eyes away from Sam Taylor-Wood’s ‘David’, which queries artistic interest in Davids and is a startling innovative portrait in video of David Beckham (click here for grainy reproduction by an exhibition-goer (not me) part-video).

This line of talk – of curatorial critique - also looked at some splendid postmodern and feminist inversions of the trope of the female nude and Barker concentrated on these, although I was itching to ask why she inserted between such exempla the massive Gilbert and George.

The balance between female and male nudes is there but I would have liked this to be theorised. Indeed it is likely that privately it was thus theorised by this impressive curator but again let’s diverge from O’Neill’s thesis. It is her privilege as a curator to stay silent about such theorisations. It makes the ‘spectator’s share’ in ‘co-curating’ the more spacious and all visitors such be grateful for these spaces.

There is another chance to hear Amy Barker on this topic. Please take it. It’s worth it. If not – go to the exhibition. It is full of treasure. Appended to it is ‘Dressed to Impress’ which use clothed portraiture to point the issue of how signification occurs in portraiture and why (even if we prefer our figures fully clothed) we need to reconsider the Naked Portrait.

[1] O’Neill, P. (2016) The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

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