A conversation with Southern California Art Maven Jennifer Frias

Installation of the exhibition, SECOND WAVE in progress, with Kristofferson San Pablo’s wall mural in the background. Pictured are Jennifer Frias, curator of SECOND WAVE (center), along with some of the artists featured in the exhibition; (left to right) Devon Tsuno, Conrad Ruiz, Emilio Santoyo, Ryan Perez, Mark Batongmalaque and Kristofferson San Pablo. Photographs by Nikolay Maslov. Courtesy of UCR ARTSblock.

Installation of the exhibition, SECOND WAVE, with Kristofferson San Pablo’s wall mural in the background. Pictured are Jennifer Frias, curator of SECOND WAVE (center), along with artists; (left to right) Devon Tsuno, Conrad Ruiz, Emilio Santoyo, Ryan Perez, Mark Batongmalaque and Kristofferson San Pablo. (Photographs by Nikolay Maslov. Courtesy of UCR ARTSblock.)

A conversation with Southern California Art Maven Jennifer Frias

Interview by Jacqueline Bell Johnson

While I have known Jennifer both personally and professionally for a few years now, one thing that struck me so deeply during this interview is the thought, care, and downright mindful concern placed on each work curated; and more importantly each artist with whom she collaborates. To her, curating is a partnership between her, the artist, and the art. Her studies in art history help her see into the future instead of dwelling on the past. She fearlessly champions the fresh, the new, and the young (and perhaps overlooked) with a focus on artists of southern California. This meandering conversation gives us some great insight into her thought process, what she’s inspired by, and where she’s headed.

Jacqueline Bell Johnson: So Let’s get started. What shows did you see this weekend?

Jennifer Frias: I saw the Guillermo Del Toro “Something Monsters” [@ LACMA]

JBJ: Did you like it?

JF: I have to say I like the way they integrated some of the permanent collection into the narrative of his characters.

JBJ: Are you a fan of his movies?

JF: You know what? It’s hot and cold. I like Blade, I like Pan’s Labyrinth. I’ve been wanting to see Devil’s Backbone. I think it was 1990 when it was made, but looks so scary. It starts off in an orphanage, it reminds me too much of Damien, which scared the crap out of me. But visually it looks amazing. That is what I should watch it for, that’s why I watch his movies. At the opening there were so many motion picture industry folks instead of art folks. It was funny not recognizing anyone from the art world there.

JBJ: Did you see LACMA’s Tim Burton Show?

JF: I did see the Tim Burton show, actually two of my friends worked on a piece with Tim Burton, it was a collaboration.

JBJ: Do you think this one was better?

JF: I would prefer the Guillermo Del Toro. I look at exhibition design too. There were a lot of people there and I need to go back and take a look at the works themselves. The way it was designed was to appeal to the general public. It wasn’t for the art crowd, so it had a “Disney-esque” feel to it. When you walk through there were a lot of painted walls, very genre like. Filigree, Fleur de Lis wallpaper…

The flow didn’t make sense to me, they were all integrated in categories. There were images from the sets in there: little models, character models. Integrated within that are paintings, drawings, sculptures from the permanent collection. It gets a little convoluted. There is so much to see it becomes too overworked. I feel it’s overwhelming. It’s not an easy job to appease everybody. LACMA does it, your museum institutions do it. You have the shits and giggles, the sellers like Guillermo del Toro. There is an instant reference to the movies, the aesthetics of the movies and the characters that you see. It really does appeal to the public. So you have to balance: What appeals to the public and what appeals to the art goer?

With the Tim Burton as well as with the Del Toro, costumes are always included. Those Concept drawings, concept models are a nice draw into the process. When you see [Del Toro’s] monsters, his characters, the detail, they pull from art history, even paintings. You see a lot of Goya in his work. Then the museum does the “We are a collecting art museum. Here’s what that reference, that concept is from.” Paintings and drawings and sculptures from past art history. It’s a hard balance too. I feel like I do that working as a curator.

JBJ: And that’s a great segue into my next question… You have an undergrad in Art History and Creative Writing, and your Grad degree in Exhibition Design. Which one do you use more?

JF: If I have to choose between the three it would be art history. It has been very useful. After all, that is at the core of where my practice is with my work. I think art history has a big influence in the way I reference things, the way I write.

JBJ: Let’s talk about your art practice. ‘Cause that’s something I don’t know much about.

JF: Well you’ve been in one.

JBJ: Ok, so let’s discuss that. So the critique project, Crit Sessions is the official title. That was a really awesome project, and what a great social practice piece. You’re already dealing with artists that have gone through “the critique.” It’s a traumatizing thing. And here you are taking the trauma out of critique and making it more of a social thing and building a community, because when I did that it was with people I didn’t know.

JF: The outcome varies depending on the artist. Some artists that I worked with felt like “You’ve only put in more trauma for me, Jennifer.” You’re put this into a perspective where “I’m not going to get the art critique outside of art school, therefore I’m on my own.” At the same time, some artists that I worked with felt they were being exploited. As an artist, I think that is one of the hazards of our career. Not to be exploited but to remind ourselves that we are always being critiqued.

I felt it in this project about being critiqued turned on me and I was not expecting that. I was not fully prepared as to how I was going to defend what we’re doing. I can defend it and its content but there are things where emotions were involved.

That’s the thing about art, you are putting some kind of personal touch into the work you’re doing. Even if its biographical or in some other sense, not yours, its someone else’s and you’re taking it. You’re always taking a viewpoint.

If you go into the classroom to critique, the differences of -painting -drawing -sculpture, each one is a language. Then you go to the other disciplines like creative writing, design, it’s a completely different language. There’s a certain logic to things, different from the other disciplines.

JBJ: One thing about the critique that is scary for a lot of artists, is that it claims a hierarchy. The person conducting it, or setting it up, or even just other fellow artists in the room in that moment are taking that pedestal … Arguably “Curator” is also a powerful position because you are choosing who, and you’re choosing not who. Are you very sensitive to that when you are looking at artists’ work?

JF: Well I think it’s a double edged sword. Its funny, because my friends and I once talked about the artist/curator thing… how studio visits are almost like dating. In how you reciprocate when you are creating some kind of exchange. “Does this person like me?” I remember the time when I did my first studio visit, when I was starting off. I was nervous and I could tell the artist was too. When I called him the next day saying that “We would love for you to be part of this exhibition.” he said “Oh my god, I have been thinking about this all night. I couldn’t even sleep, I’m so glad you called me back.” And then I felt “Oh, good. He also wants to work with me.” Beyond that, once you start working together, I do not see it as “I’m the curator, I’m picking your work. I have this vision.” The vision has to come from both the artist and curator. The artists I enjoy working with are the artists that are collaborative in the dialogue. It’s like relationships, you have to build your way… you have to work on it. You have to get to know not just the work that you are working with, but also the artist’s intentions.

In this industry, you have the option to not work with assholes. You don’t have to work with assholes. I choose to work with artists, where we have an understanding. It’s going to be our project, it’s not going to be “My vision, I’m the curator, It’s my show” It’s our show. There is an accountability on both parts.

JBJ: The artist’s artwork and their intent with the piece, versus your idea for your show… So, my experience curating, there’s some ideas where I want to take the artwork and use it totally out of context, but it works with what I’m doing to it. But, I’m using the artwork as an object and not as the meaning of the artwork or the intention… not representing that artist or anything. Do you put yourself in that situation?

JF: I feel like I’m always in that situation. Luckily for me I work with contemporary artists who are still alive… it’s a double edged sword. Good and not so. You have the luxury of saying “Here’s the synopsis of my show.” Unless the artist is: “I was wondering if this body of work works within the intent of this synopsis,” then the artist can say yes or no. If they say yeah, then we will talk further about it. If it’s no then I would say “Sorry I thought that way.” Hopefully I would do [enough] thorough research on it beforehand and not just on the work but on the artist themselves.

JBJ: So, preventative measures there.

JF: Oh, yeah. Hopefully. I would like to think that research workers have to do that, reporters hopefully, Journalists, some. But that is the same with curators too. Some work on the surface, my friend calls it lazy curating. Then there’s some that overwork it and some that do it just right. It’s all a matter of opinion, but that’s how I usually do it.

JBJ: Speaking of which, can you go step by step through your process for curating a show, just any random… I guess a generic step by step… What you do on average for most of your shows?

JF: The process is so organic. It’s when I finally get to the point of… “This would be an interesting concept, or an interesting concept for a show,” that’s when it becomes more of a process. A lot of curators get the question “How do you come up with ideas for a show?” It comes from a variety of things. One could be like, “I have this opportunity…” the other is, “I have to write a grant…” and therefore, that’s my job.

JBJ: Ok, so that’s the ignition…

JF: It’s not just a development of concept, it’s also the development of membership and patrons. A collections-based show. We get great donations, but we have to cultivate a relationship with the people that donate artwork to us. At least I work with the artwork and not the monetary. I wouldn’t know what to do if I did.

Currently where I work I did two different permanent collection shows. One is all video and the other one is most recent acquisitions and the core of it is from the Norton Foundation. Peter Norton, the antivirus software guy is a big art collector. I put together a concept looking at the scope of the stuff that we have across the board in our collection and then from there I put together. Most of the artists from this current show are still alive and are all contemporary except for one.

JBJ: Ok, you have this collection already. The artists are still alive… Did you go and talk to the artists?

JF: Most of them I have. I was saying “I have this concept for a show” and I would make sure its within the intent. Some is really clear. People that are 100 percent I would contact regardless. I did find a discrepancy when I researched online about this particular work. I’m so glad I spoke to him about it because he had told me “Oh, yeah, there is an error in the gallery’s website as to which part is mine and which part is from my collaborator.” So he cleared that for me. If I was on the fence or the work was ambiguous, I would definitely contact the artist. I don’t want to make it up. That’s the last thing I want to do. Why make up something when you have the resource out there?

JBJ: Is that something like, if you’re Paul Schimmel, would you bother doing that?

JF: I would continue doing the same thing. I would not say “I’m so-and-so therefore you’re going to be in the show!” No, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I’ll still research it, and I’ll contact the artists. I’m all about keeping the integrity of the body of work and the artists’ intentions.

JBJ: Ok, lighter note… What are you reading right now?

JF: I tend to read a few books at a time, since I don’t have a television and remote to flip and switch channels: The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles, by David E. James, My Struggle (Book 1), by Karl Ove Knausgaarde, and Spark Joy, by Marie Kondo.

JBJ: Ok there’s a preamble to this. I want my readers to know: You just did Second Wave which got a lot of reviews and attention… almost a surprising amount for a show in the Inland Empire. (There’s always a lot of competition to get people out of the city and over this way.) You have an interest and background in digital artwork and photography and film… and that show was all about the 80’s aesthetic. Its using a lot of digital, neon colors, stuff like that. So you’re an expert. One thing I always think of, is there is a lot of technology out there that is really hard for artists to grasp, and there is this huge analog versus the digital that’s happening in the art world. Most of it is still analog, even when artists (in universities at least) have access to the digital: code writing, 3D printing, and all that kind of stuff. What are your thoughts on the analog versus digital?

JF: I’m not an expert. I would say I’m a keen observer. I wouldn’t consider myself as an expert. Mine’s more an observation. That observation then becomes a big question and then I expose it, I present it to say “Who else see this?” It’s basically how I present a show. It’s my curiosity through my observation. do my research and then I’ll say… “Is anyone seeing this? The way I’m seeing this?

The exhibition has a whole gamut of mediums… its interestingly enough: painting heavy. But it looks like lots of works were generated as digital. Conrad Ruiz’s work, Devon Tsuno’s, but the whole concept of Second Wave came about not only from my observations, but again it references art history.

Four years ago there was music coming out that sounded very digital-but-analog the way the eighties used to do it. That was high tech manipulating. I remember listening to Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak and also Arcade Fire’s album, I can go on and on. Even some of the new acts out there right now: Empire of the Sun has this feel, this sound that reminded me of the 1980’s. Movies: Red Dawn, Ghostbusters, Point Break… that idea of the aesthetics that you can see of the eighties, brought into a more modern time.

Drive is such a good example. It has the soundtrack, has the look of it. If you look at the hairstyles, the way they drove, lots of old cars in there. But the biggest thing is where it took place. When you think about our transportation, our roads, where else to put a movie called Drive but Los Angeles. We are a car culture. Because it’s going to be Los Angeles, the director wanted to get that grain of the 1980’s film and 1980’s colors into this film. Seems like its stuck in the eighties. The type of buildings we have downtown…. Some of these things were built for the LA Olympics in the 1980’s so we still have some of those architectures.

Beyond that, there were all of these institutions in the United States and the UK that were getting into the whole eighties bandwagon… showing all their eighties wares, dusting off stuff in their collection.

I was looking around and then I had a conversation with Chet Glaze, who was in the Second Wave show about his new body of work, and how about a year ago I was looking at his painting… and it reminded me, of a scene from X-Files and it looked to me like the CRV television, you know that grain that it had? Regular television, before it was digital? So I’m looking at this and thinking, then I’m looking at all of these artists that I really admire, who are my age. The more and more I was hitting the jackpot, I started calling each one of them… “I’m working on an exhibition.” (This comes back to your question about how an exhibition comes about.) I call them up and we have a conversation. I’ve never talked to Pearl C. Hsiung before and I really admire her work. I remember that monster draw thing at the armory, and I saw she was one of the artists… I talk to her and she says “Yeah, Yeah, my work has that sort of feel to it.” This is starting to click, and the more I look into this, I noticed that they all are from southern California, they were all born or raised during the 1980’s, were all about the same age. And it’s also about that work coming of age, that generation. So I thought “There is something here to be done.” The reason I say my exhibitions are very collaborative, the art is supporting that dialogue.

The digital/analog thing… what’s my preference? I still think that work, though it is analog has some kind of integrity. I really enjoy the complete DIY-ness of it, because it’s a challenge to make it seem more than what it is. I also like the high tech digital because I like to see the potential: “So we can do this, but what else can it do?” One of the works from Second Wave, Chet Glaze’s… I think it goes back to the way that the structures were cut. There’s so much precision in his woodworking skills that they almost look like they went through some 3-D [Printing] type process, but it’s all done in a very analog way and I like that juxtaposition. There is a lot of contradiction in the way the works are presenting that in that show. Devon Tsuno… there’s all this position, it looks like it could have been composed digitally. It’s all hand painted, treatment of the layering is very intricate. They’re gargantuan and if you look at the details… people are blown away when they see the detail in person because of the intricate layering.

JBJ: Your favorite artwork?

JF: That’s a tough one. I don’t have one specific favorite piece but artists whose works have an impact have always admired- Pipiloti Rist, Mariko Mori, Candice Brietz, Jesper Just. I just realized they’re mostly video and video installation artists. This may have attributed to my growing up in the 80s. It was the first form of “art” that I was introduced to. Ultimately, although not video, I am drawn to artists whose art practice merges with a wide range of media- Louis Bourgeois, Steve Roden, Mike Kelley.

JBJ: Favorite curation?

JF: Two years ago at LACE they had a show that was of Steve Rodin’s work based on his residency [at the Walter Benjamin archive, Berlin], Shells, Bells, Steps and Silences curated by Robert Crouch.

There were two shows that participated in the Getty’s first PST [Pacific Standard Time] in 2012. I love what Pomona College Museum of Art did, It Happened At Pomona: Art At the Edge of Los Angeles. What Grace Kook-Anderson did over at Laguna Art Museum… Best Kept Secret. Fucking Brilliant! It was a regional thing, it had so much tact and showed the importance of what came out of that region and how there’s still some sense of relevance. Because you don’t think about Orange County having a huge impact in contemporary art, not instantly.

JBJ: Here we are in Claremont, and you work in Riverside, and I see you kick around in Fullerton and Pomona a lot and plus there is the whole, major art scene in LA… Do you find that it’s an ongoing thing to bring attention to stuff that’s out here? Is the geographical location a major detriment? How do you navigate that?

JF: It’s a very difficult thing. But I think the reason why my interest is always outside of [LA] is because there are really good stuff coming out, it’s not just coming from that concentrated area. I like finding that diamond in the rough. I wish people would venture out and look for it.

Where everything is being concentrated, it’s become so convoluted and congested. It becomes the same dialogue. We have other artist that are [working] to that level of greatness. The only thing is that they are not in that area. Give them a chance. It shouldn’t be overlooked.

I grew up in Los Angeles. LA will never leave me, but then here I am in Claremont, in LA county, on the edge. It speaks to who I am I suppose. I have to venture out. One thing I can say is I am a southern California curator. My interests, my practice also is drawn and concentrated on Southern California.

JBJ: What can we see from you soon? What is upcoming? Could you give us a sneak peek into something?

JF: I’m working on an exhibition right now. It came out of this conversation I had with someone about the desert. There’s so many things happening now in the desert and it’s exciting to see the role that contemporary art has to play… even beyond that, even prior to that.

The land art, Michael Heizer and his big ol’ boulder. Shopping in the quarry in Riverside to see which is the best rock, to see if he could find the best rock. I’m kind of imagining him going through each point, each area in the quarry, like at a Costco, going …”it looks the same. Oh, look at this one. I’ll take that!” Andrea Zittel with her High Desert Test Sites and of course Noah Purifoy, who just had this big retrospective. Now because of this whole lure of the desert …it’s at the point of colonization of “It’s a free land!” You have your Burning Man and then Coachella… There is this sense of making work in the desert just because its free and open, but there’s no regard to the why of the desert. I want to give it back to the desert. This exhibition will present a new discussion that counters the notion of the California desert beyond its beauty, its mysticism and its resurgence as a hipster’s oasis.

It’s still something I’m thinking about how to feel about it… how to present it. It’s going to be a stunning beautiful show. When I curate, I think about the look. It’s not just the space but the works in it, and how it makes sense compositionally. All this dismal starkness of the landscape with everyone’s work. Representing an emotional context when you curate a show. Emotional in the expression of the colors and the way they are laid out. It really has this life rather than this despair.

That’s what I’m working on. The challenge is to present it where it’s not another show about the desert. The art in there and what I’m thinking of with the artists… that’s a no-brainer, their works are amazing. To keep the integrity of that, and the show, and for the viewer to come in and share that perspective with how we put the show together. That’s the challenge. If you walk in and you have the wrong artists or the wrong look and feel of it, then your didactics, your conversation doesn’t mesh.

I’ve got other things on the burner, but that’s my big one. I’m doing this for myself, so much of it is for the artists in the show. They are the highlight. I just feel like every show I do, I’m the party organizer, and they’re the ones coming in and bringing the party. I have a space and that’s about it.

I have been working with a lot of emerging… What bothers me a lot is there are so many artists out there and there’s one single artist that everybody’s concentrating on. I want to be able to go “No, look!” That’s why I do these projects.

JBJ: So since you’re not teaching right now, you’re using students as assistants, as interns?

JF: Well I’m working at UC Riverside, so I’m constantly working with students. Every year I work with the senior thesis show. It was a classroom curriculum setting, it might go back to it depending on what the faculty and students want. I would team teach the class. So I still work with students heavily because of UC Riverside. I also work with the MFA students on their shows. I do studio visits with them, see their progress. It’s really cool to witness that. I’m lucky to be in that institution, where I can see them progress, and how their works have changed. Most of them that go through our school, they really do. I’m not being biased or anything. It’s quite amazing the stuff you see come out of there. You have such a world class faculty, and I enjoy working with them too.

This year alone, the MFA students, Oh my god, their works are so good. And I am like “I can not wait to work with you guys. I really can’t.” When I did Disintegration at Cal State Fullerton, the show of outdoor installations. I enjoy working with students too, they teach me a lot. *laughter* So it’s the other way.

You can see Jennifer Frias’ curations regularly at the Sweeny and Culver Art Galleries of UCR’s Artsblock.

Her current exhibits:
Instilled Life: The Art of the Domestic Object from the Permanent Collection of UCR Sweeney Art Gallery
http://artsblock.ucr.edu/Exhibition/instilledlife

For the Record: Contemporary Video from the Permanent Collection of UCR Sweeney Art Gallery
http://artsblock.ucr.edu/Exhibition/ForTheRecord

And Since we talked about her recent exhibit Second Wave, here is the link for that:
Second Wave: Aesthetic of the 80s in Today’s Contemporary Art
http://artsblock.ucr.edu/Exhibition/secondwave

Jennifer Frias is the associate curator at the Sweeney Art Gallery at UC Riverside’s ARTSblock. Her curatorial projects focus on contemporary art, video and photography with emphasis on identity, technology and pop culture. She has organized exhibitions such as “Jesper Just: Sirens of Chrome,” “RENDER: New Construction in Video Art” with artist/curator, Jeff Cain, “Even Better Than the Real Thing: The Art of the Uncanny,” “Metadataphile: The Collapse of Visual Information” with Lilia Lamas, “JEFF&GORDON: Play Against,” and “Your Donations Do Our Work: Suzanne Lacy and Andrea Bowers,” in which she was part of a curatorial team with Tyler Stallings and Shane Shukis. She is currently working on an exhibition “SECOND WAVE: Aesthetics of the 80s In Today’s Contemporary Art” that focuses on the influence of artistic styles and movements of the 1980s and its resurgence in art today. She is co-founder of the artists/curators collaborative Sixpack Projects where she and her team organizes events and exhibitions at phantom gallery venues in Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire.

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