Studio Visit: Andi Campognone, Mechanisms of Change
By Gary Brewer
“All artwork is about beauty; positive work represents and celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in our lives. When a beautiful rose dies, beauty does not die because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in the mind.” Agnes Martin
It is through images and metaphors that we tell stories; they are a means to communicate the value we hold for something; a place, an idea or a people, and to engage others and express that these things are worthy of their respect and understanding. It is in the poetic power of images and metaphors to convey ideas and create myths that art can change the world.
How an image enters one’s consciousness – the conversation between different works of art and how a space is filled, the physical impact of scale and color, content and style – all add or detract from one’s experience of seeing and understanding art. To weave together a narrative through the subjective experience of different art forms is an art in itself. Andi Campognone is a curator whose professional arc through various venues and museums have helped to develop her ability to create powerful experiences that promote positive change and illuminate the power and value of art in our daily lives.
We spoke at length about her beliefs and passionate desire to have an impact in the world. “I believe that my actions can have a positive effect in my community. This is what gets me out of bed in the morning. It is not just my love of art that has guided my path, but the deep belief that art is the best mechanism for change in the world. To work in an institution like MOAH is a satisfying challenge; understanding the values and needs of a diverse region like the Antelope Valley and the opportunity to organize experiences that unite people, have been deeply rewarding.
Andi began her life in the arts as a photographer, before the transition to digital technology. Working with chemicals in the dark room and developing skills and techniques to fine-tune the final image required intense patience and practice. “It was this part of the maker process that clarified for me that I was less interested in the craft and more interested in the ideas behind the imagery. The object became the vessel for the idea and communicating ideas became my goal.” As her ability to organize ideas grew, so did her disinterest in making the static, singular image. The free flow of ideas and emotional content in curating a group of images or artists together was compelling to her. She became a storyteller, giving vision to her ideas and interests through the collective impact of grouping of artworks together to communicate ideas and to have a positive effect in the communities where she worked.
Her first mentor was Ardon Alger, who was both her teacher and employer. He was a photographer and professor at Chaffey College and a gifted curator. “Working with Ardon was a gift. He was so thoughtful in every aspect of the exhibit installation and made sure I understood each move and placement and how it related to the viewer’s experience and how the placement itself created a larger visual dialogue. I can honestly say much of my curatorial practice came from concepts I learned while working as his assistant at the Millard Sheets Art Center.”
It was here that she assisted annually on the New Photography Exhibit. Visually and physically processing over 2000 photographic images each year, both trained her eye and sharpened her wit. “This position gave me the opportunity to work with some of the top photographic gallerists in Los Angeles, like Stephen Cohen and Paul Kopeikin, and introduced me to important photographers like Robbert Flick and Sant Khalsa, who I remain close to both personally and professionally.” Andi went on to direct the photography department at Millard Sheets and to assist with curation in the exhibits that included other mediums such as painting and sculpture.
Andi worked briefly for the California Museum of Photography as a part-time assistant while raising her children, but eventually left both the CMP and Millard Sheets for a full time position as Exhibitions Curator for the Riverside Art Museum (RAM). “This was an exciting time to be involved in the arts in Riverside. The University of California at Riverside had moved their gallery to downtown Riverside, blocks away from RAM. They hired Tyler Stallings as its curator and started planning to build out what is now the Culver Center for the Arts. I think it was my experience at Riverside Art Museum that solidified my philosophy about the value of the arts in a community.”
It was also here that Andi began her professional relationship with art historian/critic Peter Frank. “We co-curated the exhibition Driven to Abstraction together which debuted at Riverside Art Museum in 2006, a concept that went beyond the stand-alone exhibition. Driven to Abstraction was a multi-organization event that celebrated southern California’s contribution to abstract painting from 1945 to 1980. It included exhibitions at commercial galleries, non-profit organizations and the Museum, which predated the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time exhibition.”
Andi left the museum world to pursue her own projects that included developing several arts related businesses in downtown Pomona’s historic arts district. “I started with a gallery/wine bar, and developed dba256 with wine purveyor and friend Ron Faris. I approached the art programming as if it were a museum space, developing an academic thesis for the shows and supporting them with artists from all walks and levels. The shows would often include historic work from blue chip artists, to small handcrafted items made by local emerging artists. My passion for the arts and ability to collaborate made me a good candidate to be the Cultural Arts Commissioner for the City of Pomona. I contributed to many public programs and helped create the City’s first Master Cultural Plan and was instrumental in the adoption of Pomona’s Public Art Policy.”
Two years later, she went solo and opened Andi Campognone Projects; an experimental gallery space and consulting service. ”My philosophy that the importance of an artist or their work shouldn’t end when the exhibit closes, launched my investment into artist’s films, books and collecting opportunities.”
It was during this endeavor that the confluence of preparation and opportunity would bring together the strands of fate and circumstance leading to her current position at MOAH. Andi said about this, “A client and friend Steve Eglash was engaged in a project to revitalize downtown Lancaster and was looking for consultation; it was a public/private partnership with the City of Lancaster. Eglash and his partner Scott Ehrlich, proposed to build a state of the art museum to bookend Lancaster Blvd with the already established Lancaster Performing Arts Center. At first I was reluctant, but after seeing the beautiful redevelopment project and understanding the city’s enthusiasm to foster arts and culture in Lancaster – how could I say no? I was hired as a consultant to get the museum’s construction finished, get it programmed and get it open. Everything that I had done up to this point had prepared me for this opportunity. It is a challenge that I love. Not only to build out exhibitions but to piece together all of the concerns of a varied community and bring them together through the arts and cultural experiences.” Andi was involved in every aspect of creating the beautiful ambiance of this light filled space and bringing subjects of interest to the region. It is an elegant venue and a cultural treasure for the city of Lancaster.
The first exhibition that Andi curated after the new museum space opened, was a show on the Finish Fetish and early Light and Space artists of Los Angeles. “Prior to my tenure at MOAH, it had largely focused on poppies and the landscape of the high desert; but there were bigger subjects that connected this community to the creative world. The development of jets and rockets and the technologies that had sent humans to the moon, had also created a new genre of art. At first folks just couldn’t see the connection that these artists, whose sculptures of super refined objects made of synthetic resins and plastics, could have to do with them. This exhibition was a way to show how many of the artists in the exhibit used materials and technologies that had been developed in the aerospace industries, and that several of them were engineers who had been involved with this industry. It was a way to bring the worlds of science, technology and art together and how this rich interaction between art and technology created a school of art unique to Southern California, and to the high desert. It expressed my interest in using art to educate and tell stories that connect people. It was a great exhibition!”
Andi believes that one way to uplift oneself and one’s community is in the power of ownership and representing the value you feel for it through the effectiveness of art. “To use your energy to communicate your personal vision, or the value you feel for a group, or an idea, is a powerful form of transformation. Art is the best mechanism of change and I believe that when people show others the values that they believe in, it can change the world. I recently curated an exhibition for Mash Gallery in Los Angeles titled Nature Worship. It is a group show of artists who use nature as a platform to express concern for the natural world. I was inspired by the native Hawaiian philosophy that from love and respect comes care and protection. This exhibition examines the portrayal of nature beyond a system of religion and more as a means to celebrate the importance of all livings things. It addresses our current global concern for our environment without delivering a sermon. The works in this exhibit span from the literal use of the landscape in painting, photography and sculpture, to abstracted and subtle pieces that suggest a reverence to nature that are not so apparent. All of the work is highly conceptual and expertly crafted. It is my intention that this collection of beautiful, powerful work arouses the viewer and strengthens their desire to respect and protect the natural world. This artist lineup includes makers that throughout their artistic careers, have made a practice of incorporating nature or the landscape in their work; not as a passive background but as a bold contemporary subject.”
Art can be many things; the spiritual journey of an individual or the collective expression of a group. It is a language that projects ideas that shape and change the future, and it is a form of memory that is a record of the human journey. In the hands of exceptional curators and museum directors, art can bring people together. Museums are a physical and spiritual space where the collective consciousness of the human drama can be seen and felt. It is the curator’s task to map out these stories and to marry them to the interests and needs of the public, so that people feel that they are a part of it.
It is a gift to be able to channel the needs of many into a collective vision that makes everyone feel that they are a part of the journey. To realize this in the form of stellar exhibitions that contain the highest level of artistic achievement, framed in such a way that the community feels a form of ownership in the final outcome, is an accomplishment indeed. Andi Campognone is a gifted curator and Museum Director, whose abilities to find just the right threads and to weave together a story that connects people, is a form of art in itself.
On view through November 10: Nature Worship at MASH Gallery
1325 Palmetto St, Los Angeles, CA 90013