Bus stops, billboards, subways, magazines, the ads are seen everywhere. Mario Testino’s In Your Face opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston late in October. Curated by the artist himself, the works focus solely on the face represented and Testino’s notable style of pushing boundaries. Subjects include celebrities, athletics, and Russian models. Visitors of the MFA are attracted to the direct relationship between figures in the frames and the audience. Testino captures the glitz and glamour of celebrity culture and our contemporary society’s obsession with it.
Less than two miles from the MFA, the Photographic Resource Center features a new exhibition that is an interesting complement to the Testino exhibits. It is a more serious and intense look at today’s societal concerns behind the empty façade of celebrity culture. Curated by the PRC’s Program & Exhibition Manager, Erin Wederbrook Yuskaitis, The Space in Between: Daniel Feldman, Stefanie Klavens, and Lynn Saville includes photographs of empty spaces. Wederbrook Yuskaitis explains that the show “focuses on societal built environments in urban settings. Images capture supposedly…vacant scenes in public spaces where humans are present without being pictured, and the very absence of human subjects force the viewer to contemplate the space in between these human-made structures.” (Interview)
The empty spaces depicted in Wederbrook Yuskaitis’ exhibition counteract the empty meaning in Testino’s work. Unintentionally, the two independent art organizations established a cross-town conversation that addresses the issue of the human presence in art as well as the concerning aspects of contemporary society today. Sitting in a coffee shop, Wederbrook Yuskaitis elaborates, “They are both hugely contemporary; on the flip side of this celebrity culture there is still a lot going on with the recession and people are still feeling a sense of abandonment even with this ‘in your face’ mentality.” She appears incredibly relaxed and down-to-earth, preferring Erin to Ms. Wederbrook Yuskaitis. Casually sipping a chai latte and eating an oatmeal raisin cookie, she is seemingly humble, yet excited about her curatorial debut.
Growing up, Erin wanted to be a yogurt lady, shoe saleswoman, an artist, and a children’s book illustrator. Erin, who’s always done artistic things, says, “My mom put me in art lessons from a young age; so I never thought I would be an art administrator, but I did want to be an artist.” Attending the University of Virginia really shaped Erin as a person; she stayed busy with work, school, fitness, and a social life. She double majored in art history and archaeology, while serving as a R.A. and working as a referee and Clinique consultant. She focused more on graduate school and the application of her skills to her jobs rather then internships.
By the time Erin was ready for graduate school, she was already married and had worked for five years in the arts non profit world in Birmingham, AL. She received her masters in American studies at the University of Alabama. According to Erin, it was the most intense thing she has ever done: a program with “a heavy course load…working…20-26 hours a week, and commuting an hour to school. ”
Erin worked in two arts organizations before coming to the Photographic Resource Center, including Space One Eleven and VSA Alabama. At Space Once Eleven, a cutting-edge gallery, Erin assisted the curators with administrative tasks and grant writing. While not making many creative decisions, she was able to observe and learn from the decisions made by the curators and artists. She explains that exhibits pushed boundaries by “showing work that no one has seen before, approaching subjects that aren’t easily talked about—homosexuality, religion, war, politics—dealing with really weighty subjects, but using art to do it.” VSA Alabama serves members of the community with disabilities through the arts. Here, Erin worked as the Program Manager, overseeing auctions, shows, and educational programs. The shows at VSA were all juried, which is why The Space In Between is so important to her. It is the first show where, according to Erin, “It wasn’t just a whole bunch of work that I’m having to make something out of, it’s work I selected, I thought about what I wanted the concept to be, I created the idea, and then got to carry through.”
Sitting down with Erin, she explained the process of transforming her idea into reality. First, Erin needed to find an artist who intrigued her. She knew she wanted Lynn Saville in the show after seeing her work at a PRC lecture last year. Stefanie Klavens’ work also fell into her lap during a Night at the PRC, informal gatherings of photographers to discuss works that corresponds to a specific theme. Finally, Daniel Feldman invited the PRC to come see his work at Bromfield Gallery. Erin, always having loved architectural work, was intrigued by one of his works, a silvery construction piece.
The next step involved making the connection. Erin asked herself questions: “What are the themes that I see in these images? And how can I draw it together, and what should the overarching concept be?” Erin focused on cultural vulnerability through the built environment. She feels that “people don’t think architectural work reveals anything emotional, but I disagree because none of these works were taken by architectural photographers.” Erin feels it is extremely important to maintain good relationships with the artists, especially throughout the entire exhibition process. She strongly believes, “It’s a matter of trust, instilling trust with the artists so they are comfortable with my decisions … I’m very much an advocate of … establishing relationships in the jobs you have. You will only win in the end.” Erin also pays close attention to the way she is representing the artists’ work. She specifies the importance of “making sure you are representing the artist[s] the way they want to be represented and you aren’t overanalyzing.”
Vinnie Marasa, the PRC’s longtime Installation Technician, worked closely with Erin on the show. He raves “I love working with Erin, [she’s] very open minded and very involved. The PRC is nice because its small and you don’t have layer upon layer upon layer of bureaucracy; the communication is more immediate, you can try things out…what’s nice about this place is that it is very flexible.” He explains how important this trait is because it is not really until the work is in the physical space that you can see how the show will come together.
The show was loosely inspired by the Janelle Lynch show at the PRC, Los Jardines de Mexico. The show approached subjects such as loss, emptiness, and life renewal through Mexican landscapes. Erin explained, “That show moved me so deeply and I was very inspired by the fact that you could feel such intensity from prints that at first glance aren’t about those subjects.” All of the themes from the Janelle Lynch show remained ingrained in Erin’s head for a long time. These ideas, along with the fact that the country has been in the middle of a recession, created the foundation for her show. She says, “A lot of people are dealing with a sense of loss and not knowing exactly why.” Erin wanted to focus on something that people are witnessing in society right now. She wanted to make the personal universal.
Erin defines her curating style as thinking about the viewer experience. Erin’s distinctive style provides a refreshing departure from other arts professionals: she does not hold a degree in a museum-specific field; her background comes from hands-on experience in the nonprofit world. She focuses solely on what the viewer is experiencing and feeling. This individualistic approach carries over to what Erin hopes viewers take from the show. As any curator, she wants them to understand the main themes of the exhibition. The show is broken down by artist in the three-room gallery: themes of Lonely Places, Storefronts in Flux, and Destruction/Construction travel through the rooms and weave the works of the varying artists together. But, what’s more, Erin focuses on the relationships between the works and their aesthetics. It’s because of these intense focus points that she wants the show to alter visitors’ perspectives, for visitors to consider her message, and continue to grapple with it for days after the show. The strangely personal nature of the show hits the middle-class American public right in the gut.
Knowing that every person interprets art differently, Erin only asks one thing from her viewers: consider the show. She explains, “It irks me when people beeline to certain pieces or rush through the show.” Although she does understand that people appreciate art differently, she hopes visitors will take the time to consider the main concepts: abandonment, loss, emptiness, and urban renewal. She wants people to “understand that these images convey the cultural vulnerability that we are feeling at this moment. But if you look at the show 50 years from now there is something about it that is timeless, like the prints are caught in [a] post-apocalyptic [movement].”
When asked about her favorite piece in the show, she simply could not decide. She loves the entire show, as does the PRC public. The show opening on November 15th drew a crowd of 115 people. The show has been featured in The Boston Globe and national photography blog, Lenscratch. Come see for yourself what the show is about before it comes down on January 19th.
–Meredith Hoobler, Arts and Entertainment Blogger