Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Interview with Camilo Alvarez of Samsøn

(An abbreviated version of this interview appeared in the Huffington Post in November of 2011).  

Mark Cooper:  More is More, on view at Samsøn, October 21 – December 10, 2011 (Photo:  Clements|Howcroft)

Many who love art and enjoy experiencing it at museums, galleries and non-profit art spaces have little idea that those experiences would not be possible without the efforts and contributions of curators, gallerists, art installers and others working behind the scenes. 

This post is the first in a series I am informally calling "The Cultural Landscape Architects." They are art world professionals who play a role in connecting art with the public. They decide which artworks by which artists are presented, place the art in the contexts of both art history and current times, and help shape the cultural landscape. 

I met Camilo Alvarez, the owner of the critically acclaimed and beloved art gallery Samsøn, because all my artist and gallerist friends in New York told me it was the place to see in Boston during my time there in 2007-2008. A friendly, "hip-but-unpretentious" fellow with serious smarts, Camilo traverses many worlds. In recent years at Art Basel Miami Beach, I have run into him at places as wildly different as the fancy rooftop bar where he was entertaining ICA/Boston board members and the crazy karaoke dive bar in the basement of the Shelborne. Equally adept at working with artists and collectors, he exhibits art that is challenging, serious and provocative.

Camilo Alvarez (r), during "Chain Letter" at his gallery, Samsøn (Photo:  Justin Freed)

Julie Chae:  Hi Camilo, when did you decide to open a gallery?

Camilo Alvarez:  I can't recall the exact moment I decided to open a gallery, but I do remember when I decided I wanted to work with art.  I was on a high school (Walton in the Bronx) trip to the "Basquiat" show at the Whitney and I remember seeing how activated my classmates were.

JC:  Bronx schoolkids on a field trip to a Madison Avenue art museum! And what was going on?

CA:  These were rough and tough kids from the streets and "third" world countries, awestruck by what they saw and amazed by the maker.  Spontaneous conversations among timid teens, hard thugs and well-heeled strangers?!  I knew I wanted to help perpetuate more reactions and situations like that.

JC:  Is this why you decided to go to Skidmore?

CA:  Yes, Skidmore had a great library and an ambitious art program.  I studied Art and Art History there.  I knew I wanted to get as much behind-the-scenes action as possible. 

JC:  And what other kinds of experiences have influenced your thinking about art and what you want to do in the art world?

CA:  After college, I went back home to work for artists, galleries, art delivery companies, museums, including Exit Art and Socrates Sculpture Park, among other places.  One of my favorite jobs, or positions rather, was at an artist residency, the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture.   At Skowhegan, I was the Program Associate, which meant I was in the NYC offices most of the year and then at the actual residency and studios in Skowhegan, Maine, for 9 weeks in the summer.  It's magic up there.  Besides the history of the place, it's also at the forefront of contemporary art because its Board of Governors is made up of all accomplished artists.  They provide a strong stewardship. I'm currently going for a Masters.  Museum Studies.  Harvard.  Yes.  All these faces and places have most assuredly infected my understanding of art as an experimental social expression. 

JC:  You get a lot of respect from art world peers for your gallery's bold and original program. Would you describe your vision for the art you're interested in showing at Samsøn?

CA:  The program, hmmm everyone from the "art world" asks that.  The viewer doesn't care about "the program"!?  I think it, "the program," is constantly evolving as everything should.  I would describe it as diverse, be it medium, gender, background, ideas...kinda like the viewer.  I go for what I would loosely describe as the "transgressive accessible."  Showing work that discomforts, work that can relate to people outside and inside of "the art world," because it is a strange place to be.  Some Machiavelli for you:  "[T]here is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things...."  In a commercial gallery, a single exhibition can deter a lot of future sales or incite a slew of people calling the gallery to get removed from the email list.  In the grand scheme of things then, it makes you wonder if "the program" matters. 

JC:  Well, you definitely do not shy away from exhibiting art that could be construed as “controversial.” Your second show with Gabriel Martinez is even more intense than the first one you had.

Gabriel Martinez, September 9 – October 15, 2011, Installation View, Samsøn (Photo: Clements|Howcroft)

JC:  And so despite owning a commercial enterprise, you continue to show art that is difficult, can confuse and can upset people. Last spring, you exhibited a solo show of work by the fantastic Hank Willis Thomas, whose past solo shows have had titles like “Branded” and “Pitch Blackness.” How did people react to this show?

CA:  It was revealing to show Hank, an African-American artist who predominantly deals with the depiction of color in advertising, in very white Boston.  The younger generation, the students, grooved with it and were completely familiar with the racial tropes, whereas others were leery of it.  That space in between is where the magic happens – a slight discomfort. The viewer wonders if they're missing something or if they can believe what they see. 

Hank WIllis Thomas, Scouring the Earth for my Affinity, Installation View, Samsøn (Photo:  Clements|Howcroft)

JC:  I was impressed with the Thomas exhibition and equally thrilled to get your announcement about Samsøn’s participation at zonaMACO with works by Victoria Fu, Carrie Mae Weems, Francesca Woodman, Alix Pearlstein, Summer Wheat and Adrian Piper.  These are not artists that regularly get seen in a lot of commercial galleries outside of New York and LA in the U.S.; I hope you get a chance to exhibit their works in Boston, as you did with Thomas.

CA:  Yes, I curated the booth at zonaMACO in Mexico City this year.  Exhibiting abroad is always intense; from dealing with customs and shipping to making sure you pace yourself for a long week.  It’s a gambit that can be edgy and economically smart.  Most of the works were photographs or videos, so multiply available, but then I don't represent most of those artists so there is always a chance people will go elsewhere for the work.  I enjoy mixing generations; seminal artists like Adrian Piper and Carrie Mae Weems along with emerging artists Victoria Fu, with whom I had never worked previously, and Summer Wheat, whom I just started showing.  
Summer Wheat, Bone Breaker, 2010, oil and acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches

JC:  Mixing generations is a wonderful way to contextualize art. What’s a particularly special exhibition in which you were able to do this?

CA:  I recently exhibited the entire Woodman family:  Betty, Charlie, Francesca and George.  They had never shown together.  Betty is a sculptor, Charlie does video, film and performance, Francesca photographed and George has been painting on photographs recently.  George and Betty met in Boston and have been showing for decades!  Betty is one of the few living artists to have had a retrospective at the MET.  It was predictable some wanted to talk about Francesca's suicide, but most viewers noticed how the thread of family can run through the work.  The exhibition was installed so it was as if you were listening in on the family's conversation.  It’s a wholesome subject that is considered perhaps hokey, but this first social structure is necessary and incredibly important.

Betty, Charlie, George & Francesca, December 10 - February 26, 2011. Installation View, Samsøn 
(Photo:  Clements|Howcroft)

JC:  From an exhibition that addresses issues involving the fundamental human social structure to the summer event “Chain Letter,” which looks like it was a grand, fun, free-for-all. Can you say something about "Chain Letter," the event/exhibition, that you had in July this past summer?

CA:  Chain Letter was more of a community building exercise. The summer is usually dead for the art world, so this was a word-of-mouth experiment.  The real part of the “exhibition” happened with the moment you [the artist] received the letter of admiration and then forwarded it on. The 1200-plus objects that arrived at the gallery served as documentation of that interaction. 

Chain Letter exhibition/event at Samsøn (Photo:  Justin Freed)

Chain Letter exhibition opening, outside at Samsøn (Photo:  Nancy Fulton)

JC:  Because Samsøn serves as venues for projects like “Chain Letter,” curated video screenings and arts performances, your gallery has always been extremely popular with local artists who crave more exposure to cutting-edge art. Now you have found another way to support local artists – by providing a residency program that allows a chosen artist to work out of a studio beneath the gallery. Why did you decide to do this and how does it work?  

CA:  Ah yes and sübsamsøn, the residency.  I miss that direct interaction with the artist that I’d had when I worked at Skowhegan, which as you know is one of the premier US residencies.  The details:  the artist pays rent here.  I get them professional experience:  studio visits, exhibition opportunities, sales.  Pretty clearcut, kinda. They are artists based in New England, "local" artists with no representation.  I find them from looking around. We are basically in it together so I decide who gets in. 

JC:  Sounds like a good deal for the artist who needs to pay rent for his/her studio anyway, whether in a separate building or in a corner of the apartment, it’s a cost of making art, like materials and supplies. In return the artist gets constructive feedback from you, business/career/strategic advice, introductions to critics, curators, gallerists, collectors, a residency program to add to their resume, and a professional to take care of any sales?

CA:  And the $357 monthly rent is more of a token commercial relationship. Let’s not talk about the packages we send out for the resident artist, the exposure to “First Friday” crowds, the projects I get them. It’s all good.

JC:  Since it sounds like the residency application/acceptance is an informal process, do you want to share the story of how you met John C. Gonzalez, your current sübsamsøn artist? What did you see in him or his work that you thought was interesting or powerful or promising?

CA:  I first saw John's work in a Museum School (School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) sale.  It was one of those funny/weird, army/lego-looking prints. And then I saw the name:  ‘Wow a Latino sweet.’  I then re-met him at a project he and some other Museum School folks were doing in Dorchester called “Lufthansa.”  I did a communal studio visit with them.  Then I find out he's Puerto Rican and Irish?  Nice combo.  Then I find out he was in residency at Skowhegan.  Then I find out he did a residency in Wyoming where he came up with his own cattle-branding iron?  I think there's something about artists that can comment in many or any media on contemporary subject matter; it takes skill and bravery. 

John C. Gonzalez, Self Portrait (Anonymous mail-order painting artist hired to paint an image of him or herself) 2009

JC:  You're from NYC and you once told me you moved to Boston "for love," which is adorable, you know? Having met your wonderful wife, I have to agree it was a terrific decision. 

CA:  Yes, love is the answer!  Everyone should leave their hometown.  Unplug the umbilical. Alexandra, my wife, left her hometown of Boston for NYC and we left my hometown (NYC) for hers.  Eventually, we might have to find a new hometown for the both of us.

JC:  Well, I know people in Boston and in NYC that love both of you, so let’s discuss those places. New York is a magnet for the arts, but other communities have locals that love art too, including Boston. And you are constantly demonstrating you are committed to engaging in a serious dialogue about art and culture with the community there.

CA: I love NYC and I visit often, but it has changed.  It's not what it used to be.  I feel the worship of money is fraught with problems.  Opportunities that were once at the fingertip are now lost, misused or unavailable to most.  It’s like that everywhere, but it's just in your face and fast in NYC.

Boston is an interesting city.  Much more subtle and low-key, and it’s physically easier to leave than NYC.  There has been a historical rivalry between the two places, which is funny; there's no need for it.  There are a lot of students in Boston – young sponges ready to spring and spread upon the world.  I don't feel that to contribute to culture you have to be based in a place anymore.  NYC taught me that and Boston extended it for me.  

JC:  So, Camilo, care to make one last statement here of your own choosing about art?

CA:  Obscure and opaquely intellectual art for its own sake is highly problematic for me.  It seems people who need an inbuilt social situation to satisfy an existence is pathetic. Why such self referentiality?  I hate cliques.  I got into art because my curiosity and need for knowledge is insatiable.  Art for me encompasses everything.  We are a species ... not American, Thai, or New Yorker.  Fucking reflect, y'all!  If art is made and isn't seen, does it exist? 

Camilo Alvarez is the owner (and drector, curator and preparator) at Samsøn (founded as Samson Projects in 2004) in Boston, Massachusetts. Camilo was born in 1976 in New York City to Dominican parents and lived in Santo Domingo for 7 years. He received a BA from Skidmore College and is currently studying to receive a Masters in Museum Studies from Harvard University. He has worked at, among other places, Exit Art, Socrates Sculpture Park, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, MIT’s List Visual Art Center and the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. Samsøn’s programs and exhibitions have been reviewed by, among others, ArtForum, the Boston Globe and Flash Art. Gallery artist Gabriel Martinez just had his second solo show in September, and currently on view at the gallery is Mark Cooper (October 21 – December 10, 2011). See http://samsonprojects.com for more information.
An abbreviated version of this interview appeared on the Huffington Post in November of 2011.  This post is the first in a series by curator Julie Chae in which she provides commentary on the process of disseminating art to the people and profiles art world professionals involved in that process. You can find more at http://juliechaeprojects.com.