An interview with iMOCA curator Christopher West
"Chakaia Booker: The Making of a Public Art Exhibition"
July 22-Sept. 6
“I’m a minimalist at heart. So, I love simple things,” said Christopher West. On this day, his sartorial choice reflects this artistic sensibility. He wears plain khaki pants, a grey shirt and a green Oakland “As” baseball cap. West, though, adds an unexpected splash of color to this simple outfit: flashy, blue and yellow horizontal striped socks. “The sock obsession started when I first moved to San Francisco. I needed a way to express myself; given my budget, socks were a lot easier to come by than those Jil Sander suits I still lust after,” says West, who now boasts a sock collection that seems to include every hue on the color wheel.
But forms and shapes are the elements that ignite West’s imagination — and he gets to communicate his passion and knowledge of forms and shapes as he finds, displays and interprets art for the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA).
For West, “Contemporary art and contemporary artists should push boundaries. These can be artistic boundaries in exploring new mediums, conceptual boundaries when exploring new ideas or political boundaries when exploring new discourses.”
Since iMOCA’s grand opening in its permanent home in The Emelie Building at 340 N. Senate Ave. in 2004, West has mounted a series of innovative exhibitions that have pushed boundaries and invited introspection. The inaugural show, “Out of Place,” was “kind of playing with the notion of contemporary art being out of place in Indy and bringing something to the city that didn’t have a traditional home,” West says. For some Hoosiers, the show likely challenged their very understanding of what “art” could be. San Francisco artist Theresa Gooby’s work comes to mind.
Through an installation of 20 vacuum cleaners, Gooby asked her audience to consider whether “an object being in a museum makes it beautiful or is there innate beauty all around us?” (www.indymoca.org/public/index). A first photograph featured one lonely vacuum cleaner. Other photographs showed the vacuum cleaners’ more social side. For example, there was a photograph of eight vacuum cleaners outside of a bar, and there was one of 13 vacuum cleaners portraying the Last Supper of Jesus Christ.
When asked if he was concerned whether a Midwest audience would favorably receive Gooby’s work, West says, “I wasn’t worried at that point because I wasn’t getting paid [laughs]. Plus, it was just a great piece of artwork that everyone can relate to. Everyone has a vacuum cleaner, right?”
West was, however, “sweating bullets” before the Midwest premiere of “Nausea II,” “basically a pornographic rock opera” video project that iMOCA helped produce. “Nausea II” showcased Guy Richards Smit's art-rock band, Maxi Geil! & PlayColt. “I had no idea what to expect,” West says. “But it seems every time we push the envelope and do something that makes me nervous, I am constantly surprised how receptive Indianapolis is and how open [its citizens] are to taking things one wouldn’t expect to see here.”
In his role as curator, West asserts that he has been fortunate not to face any censorship issues. But he has confronted other institutional constraints, namely space. “The size of the space we have lends us to just being able to show a handful of artists a year. We might do six exhibitions per year, and many of those will be one-person exhibitions. So, we really have to be picky.”
This potential limitation, however, has taught West to appreciate the resources at his disposal. “Though I would obviously like to see us a little bit bigger, there are advantages to being smaller. A lot of the larger institutions will plan their exhibition schedule years in advance. But we are able to cut that down by a lot and really remain responsive to contemporary art trends.”
West, 36, was first exposed to contemporary art as a 12-year-old tourist visiting his big sister in Washington, D.C. He found himself inside the Smithsonian, fixated on the works of Robert Rauschenberg. “For the first time I realized that art didn’t have to be just a pretty picture hanging on the wall. It kind of opened my mind to what [contemporary art] could be.” Though this esthetic experience moved him greatly, contemporary art would not be a part of West’s daily life until much later.
In college, at Indiana University in Bloomington, West majored in computer information systems for three years. “I chose that major because I looked at average starting salaries of all majors at IU at that time, and it had the highest.” There was just one hitch in his plan. He was absolutely miserable. “I knew that if I continued down that path, I would just want to kill myself. So I dropped out of school for a few years and did a lot of traveling.”
Whether West was backpacking through Europe or zigzagging across the USA in his old Honda Accord, a strong impulse seemed to direct him. “My travels gravitated toward museums and exhibitions that I wanted to see, such as at Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and the Reina Sofia in Madrid. So I decided to finish my business degree and take as much art history as I could.” West chose to finish his degree at IUPUI. On campus, he met several influential professors from the Herron School of Art and Design, including Jean Robertson and Stephanie Dickey, who ultimately led him to a curatorial career. “That is where I had some great art history professors. They are the ones who really took me under their wing and showed me this world out there where you didn’t have to be an artist to work in the arts. They taught me about the auction houses and about museum work, and curators and the gallery system.”
To West’s surprise, the business courses he took at IU have been put to use more than he had anticipated. “At the time, I had no idea what I was going to do with a business and art history background. It seemed like kind of an odd combination. But my marketing and finance skills are constantly being called upon because even though iMOCA is a nonprofit art space, it still has to run like a business.”
One curatorial function that West enjoys is finding, nurturing and promoting young talent. “We [iMOCA] try to catch all of our artists early in their careers. We are constantly looking for those artists that are just at the breakthrough point in their career. We think that we can give them a little push to take them to that next step.”
Under the leadership of West and Kathy Nagler, iMOCA executive director, iMOCA has helped bring attention to such artists as Tim Gardner, whose portraits were shown at the London Portrait Gallery; Craig Doty, an “Artforum” Top 10 pick; and Emily Kennerk, who went on to have a major show at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Nagler attributes iMOCA’s success in this realm, in part, to West’s “sharp eye” and his ability to “stay on top of art trends without being trendy.”
West consciously chooses exhibition themes that are “broad enough not to pigeonhole the work of artists.” In curating there is a a need to contextualize art for the public while providing an environment where a piece of art can speak to each individual independently. In a recent iMOCA exhibition, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t,” which draws on a Louis Jordan song for its title, West feels satisfied that the loose theme of identity provided a useful organizing frame and guidepost for the audience without subordinating the collection of seven videos to the concept.
Programs such as iMOCA 101 and artist talks attempt to contextualize and expand knowledge about the museum’s exhibitions. According to West, this is a key part of iMOCA’s service to the public. West has also been involved in art outside of institutional settings. Every May, for instance, he serves as a judge for the annual “Artful Tread,” in which businesses on Massachusetts Avenue are invited to transform tires into art works. “This was the best year. Every year it gets more creative. I really like my neighborhood, that’s why I do it, just to help out,” West says.