Pitzer College needs Ciara Ennis. In her first year at the helm of the college’s art galleries, where Ennis acts as the director and curator, the Pitzer art program feels born again. In the trends-as-fleeting-as-fashion art world, Ennis, while not exactly wearing her heart on her sleeve, pulls together shows that feel powerful and magical. As a curator, she has a distinctive style; she draws from experience beyond the confines of the art world and embraces the influence of film, pop culture, and literature, all with a multi-disciplinary approach . . . an approach that fits well with Pitzer’s own culture.
Since having come to Pitzer from UCR/California Museum of Photography in September, Ennis has offered shows that are planted firmly within the contemporary art context and culled from across a broad spectrum, from an eerily beautiful conceptual recalibration of Antarctica, to a show of nuanced painting by Sandeep Mukherjee. The result has been immensely satisfying; Ennis is bringing in established artists and setting up gallery walk-thrus and artist talks. There’s more to come, and this week Pitzer will host a reworking of an Allan Kaprow happening in collaboration with MOCA’s Allan Kaprow—Art as Life.
Pitzer just may be the perfect place for such an undertaking, a nearly blank slate for an ambitious young curator to make a mark. The college’s gallery program, relatively unfettered by superstructure, is flexible and dynamic, and Pitzer’s president, Laura Trombley, has demonstrated a commitment to building a strong gallery program with aspirations to achieving national prominence.
Ennis’ curatorial interests and skills have lent vitality while at the same time bringing a critical mass. The rapid transition between shows has created a sense of energy and urgency. At gallery events, it’s easy to notice Ennis’ combination of seriousness and charm. From the moment she opens her mouth to speak, her astute observations are cast out with an air of casual grace and intense focus. In November, at the gallery walk-through for the Antarctica exhibit featuring Joyce Campbell, Anne Noble, and Connie Samaras, Ennis shifted on her feet a bit in a hint of nerves, glancing periodically at the three artists to her left, as if orienting herself as she introduced their work.
At openings, Ennis works the room with assurance, talking with artists, faculty, students and casual passers-by. She deftly introduces people and moves on. Her easy-going manner and desire to connect people to the scene serve her and the gallery well. She also seems to enjoy the ambiguity that dealing in contemporary art affords—that space of withholding judgment in favor of experience. Ennis’ own experience and credentials are impressive. She studied painting at the Norwich School of Art, Karlsruhe Kunst Akademie in Germany, and Central St. Martins before earning a masters degree in curatorial practice at the Royal College of Art in London. Her empathy for artists emerges from her art training early in her career. Besides having worked at UCR/California Museum of Photography, she has worked as a curator at MOCA and the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
IE Weekly recently caught up with Ennis to pose a few questions.
IE Weekly: Is there such a thing as curatorial authorship? Is the curator simply a historian, taking on the role of objective observer, disinterestedly presenting work in a particular context, or perhaps offering interpretation . . . or does the curator advance work that he or she cares about?
Ciara Ennis: There’s absolutely such a thing as curatorial authorship. I view my exhibitions as starting points for a whole set of ideas to be explored, some apparent, others yet to be unveiled. Most of my exhibitions are group and thematic and evolve organically. I start with a germ of an idea, which leads to an artist or a particular work, and it grows from there. The art world can be incredibly claustrophobic and hermetic, and unless you’re intimately involved it can be alienating; that’s why I try to reference non-art concerns: novels, films, unusual individuals, which allows the shows to breathe and take on a life of their own and—I hope—be read in a number of ways.
IEW: In an interview, you spoke of creating "visually arresting and memorable exhibitions," which demonstrates faith in concrete experiences of the work of art and an appeal to sensuality.
CE: If the exhibition doesn’t excite on a visual level, then you’re not going to learn anything. There’s no point in going—why not read an article instead? To curate is to articulate relevant contexts for artists’ work within the tradition of art making but also to create something new, to find unexpected and surprising relationships and meanings that were not necessarily there before.
IEW: You’ve indicated that the contemporary context requires withholding judgment because it’s hard to say whether "the work is really significant and meaningful." This reflects openness to creative work and a commitment to exploring possibilities.
CE: There are some works that I have an instant relationship with as soon as I see them; there are others that I remain conflicted about. It’s too easy to be dismissive and make hard and fast judgments; some works require time to unfold. It’s our job as curators to allow that to happen. Above all it is vital to take risks; otherwise, nothing new is ever learned.
IEW: Does your experience studying as a painter affect your appreciation for the work of artists you’re presenting . . . or perhaps provide you with points of identification?
CE: There’s no doubt. My former life as an artist informs everything that I do, and obviously it’s an extension of my creative work . . . although, I’m much happier being a curator than making art—being an artist can be perilously introspective!
IEW: You had a turning point where you consciously chose to pursue curating over painting, and at nearly the same time an opportunity arose for you to study with someone whom you respected very much. How did this develop for you?
CE: There’s no point flogging a dead horse; I stopped believing in my potential as a painter quite some time ago. You have to be brutally honest with yourself, however hard that may be. Curating fascinates me, and can be exhilarating—especially when it involves working with sets of disparate works and making them fit together into a coherent whole. Working at MOCA with Paul Schimmel was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had. He is an artist’s curator and will do everything in his power—which is considerable—to realize an artist’s vision. This is somewhat rare in the curatorial world, but a position I completely endorse.
IEW: What’s it like for you to visit artists’ studios? I’ve talked to a number of artists who are extremely protective of that space. Sometimes visiting a studio feels like an invasion of privacy or that the artist is quite vulnerable at that moment.
CE: Visiting studios is my favorite part of the job, and for the most part I see it as an honor. For most artists it can be an exhausting and nerve-raking experience. The expectations—to represent who you are and what you do in 60 minutes to someone who claims to be an authority—are immense and somewhat unrealistic.
IEW: What made this the right moment for you to leave Riverside and come to Pitzer . . . and why Pitzer?
CE: UCR/California Museum of Photography was great for me in terms of my curatorial practice as I had an incredible opportunity to develop and expand my work over the two years that I was there, but I wanted to be in an institution that was non-medium specific and, like all curators, have the autonomy to develop the program the way I saw fit. Pitzer allows me to do this; it has a relatively short history, an open book to be invented as I go. What an unusual and rare opportunity!
For information on the April 9, Industry of the Ordinary: Re-Work (For Allan Kaprow, Marina Abramovic and Philip-Lorca di Corcia exhibit, call (909) 607-8797 or visit: www.pitzer.edu