Cornell Museum Turns On The Public with “Lit” Exhibition. Exclusive interview with curator extraordinaire Melanie Johanson

Old School Square Cornell Museum, installation shot, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Old School Square Cornell Museum, installation shot, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum

By Deianira Tolema

Historically, light has always fascinated artists. From Caravaggio, Monet, Hopper and Duchamp to contemporary masters like James Turrell and Dan Flavin, light is perhaps the single most important formal element of art making. The Cornell Museum in Delray Beach, Florida has turned light into a major subject of a wide-ranging contemporary survey – “Lit.”

Rubem Robierb, White Heart Open 24HR, acrylic, sikscreen, diamond dust, neon, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Rubem Robierb, White Heart Open 24HR, acrylic, sikscreen, diamond dust, neon, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum

Curated by Melanie Johnson, “Lit” brings together 18 contemporary artists exploring almost every aspect of light.

“New technologies have given artists ways to not only capture light with a paintbrush, but to harness it, manipulate it, digitalize it, and bend it,” explains Johanson. Materials as diverse as plastic, paper, fiberglass, nylon, neon, air and water are all employed in ways that delight and amuse. “Lit” features some 90 works installed throughout the museum’s galleries.

“Light in the hands of these artists will change the way people understand and experience this omnipresent element. The exhibition is both about the future and the present – literally seeing in a whole new way,” Johanson notes. “It’s something of an amusement park! Here is a group of colored acrylic gnomes, sunlight blazing through them, whilst various other panels and sculptures made out of neon and video screens create a fascinating carnival-like world suitable for all ages and cultures.”

We interviewed the curator of the “Lit” show to find out more about her academic background, her job, and her previous and current exhibitions at the Cornell Museum.

Curator Melanie Johanson with Jeremy Lyon Director of Gavlak Gallery at Old School Square Cornell Museum, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Curator Melanie Johanson with Jeremy Lyon Director of Gavlak Gallery at Old School Square Cornell Museum, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Olivia Steele, As Above So Below, blown and mirrored glass, found glass, interior lighting, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Olivia Steele, As Above So Below, blown and mirrored glass, found glass, interior lighting, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum

Let’s start from the beginning. What did you study in college and how did you become a curator?

I studied Advertising and English Literature at Loyola University, and then Graphic Design at Tulane University (both in New Orleans.) I’ve taken many arts courses including studio art and art history. I’ve always been fascinated by visual art and knew I wanted my career to focus on art.

Prior to moving to South Florida, I taught studio art and art history full time to high school students at a private school in New Orleans, Louisiana. I started working at the Cornell Art Museum (then the Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture) as the Assistant to the Museum Director some years ago, then the Director retired about one year after I began working with her. I became Cornell Museum Curator soon after and was able to change the focus from American Culture to Contemporary Art.

What was your first professional job in the art world?

Not exactly art world, but I was first an art teacher at an all-girls high school in New Orleans. I taught studio art and art history. These kids created some amazing artwork – you wouldn’t believe how talented high school kids can be! Teaching gave me a valuable perspective of craft and context.

What was the first exhibition you curated?

The exhibition was titled “From the Ordinary to the Extraordinary: Paper as Art,” and it opened in May of 2014. The show focused on artwork created using paper –cut, sculpted, collaged, and really anything imaginable. It was a truly incredible experience; I learned so much, met so many quality people, and worked with some amazing artists. I remember being surprised every time an artist or gallery would agree to work with me. I’m still working with people who I met through this first exhibition. (You, Deia, are one of those that I was so lucky to have met!)

Works by Frank Hyder, mixed media on plexiglass with LEDs, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Works by Frank Hyder, mixed media on plexiglass with LEDs, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum

I remember “Paper as Art.” It was a beautifully thought out exhibition, but I think your skills fully blossomed with the show “eXXpectations.”

Thank you! At the Cornell Art Museum, I plan group exhibitions that typically unify the artwork based on the media the artist uses. The “eXXpectations” exhibition was one of the first we focused on a conceptual theme. It was an all women’s exhibition, and we posted quotes on the walls by the artists who were prompted to answer the question: “What expectations have been placed on you as an artist and as a woman?” The show included emerging and established artists, and the stories that the women told were almost as fascinating as the artwork itself.

Old School Square Cornell Museum, installation shot 1, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Old School Square Cornell Museum, installation shot 1, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum

Another exhibition and one of my favorites was “Bling: Art That Shines” because it was so much fun to put together, and visitors loved it. I’ll always remember an experience I had while teaching – one of my co-workers would tell me, “glitter is not an art supply,” and I remember this really bothered me because I feel as though artists can use anything to create. The “Bling” show was almost a response to that experience – I had the pleasure of curating an entire show full of artwork that sparkled and shined! Diamond dust, Swarovski crystals, mirrors, gold leaf, beads and more were used by the artists featured, and people definitely responded positively to the contemporary pop art in the museum at the time.

Another exhibition that stands out as one of my personal favorites was the “Reimagined” exhibition, which ran during the summer of 2015. Artwork included in this show was all created from non-traditional media – including portraits created out of celebrities’ trash (Jason Mecier), butterflies cut from cans found in the streets (Paul Villinski), animals created from various plastic trash (Sayaka Ganz). Visitors had a similar reaction to this show as the “Paper as Art” show – they wondered how these pieces were created, and marveled at the sheer craftsmanship of the work. One of the best parts of curating for the Cornell Art Museum is enjoying the reactions of the visitors. I hope these exhibitions inspire visitors to keep learning about art and keep exploring.

Chris Bracey, Sail Away, neon and carnival lights fitted to hand painted wood, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Chris Bracey, Sail Away, neon and carnival lights fitted to hand painted wood, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum

What for you is curating? It’s more than hanging shows, of course. How do you see the process?

Curating at the Cornell Art Museum is often about putting together a show that is both aesthetically pleasing as well as captivating intellectually for our visitors. I think many times museums come off as stuffy or boring, and I try to avoid that vibe. We want to reach people no matter their walk of life; visitors should feel comfortable whether they’ve had zero art classes or have an art history degree! I think contemporary art truly reaches people across the board – young people connect with it for sure, but the older demographic still enjoys cutting-edge artwork if it’s presented in a way that is accessible.

Is there a difference between how contemporary art is perceived in Miami and, say, in New York? Do people expect different stimuli from different contexts?

The way contemporary art is perceived varies from person to person, no matter the location, with each person coming to a work or installation with their opinions, experiences, beliefs, and these factors all influence the way the viewer takes in the piece of art. The culture in Miami is vastly different than the culture in NYC, and cultural background will always play a part in how a piece of artwork is viewed, but reactions will always vary, and there is no “right” way to view works, or “right” background to have.

Old School Square Cornell Museum, installation shot 3, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Old School Square Cornell Museum, installation shot 3, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum

How do you choose your artists?

I typically come up with a theme for the exhibition, then go from there. I have photos from attending art fairs, visiting galleries, and studio visits to look through to help organize my thoughts for exhibitions. Sometimes, the idea for an entire exhibition is born from a single art piece that inspired me; at other times, the theme will come from trends I’ve noticed. “Wild” was particularly different because the idea for this show was based on the altruism of one artist whose works I have been drawn to for years, but more than that, his commitment to a cause. The museum donated 10% of sales during the “Wild” exhibition to a foundation created by Alex Beard, called “The Watering Hole Foundation.”

I suppose the way the artists are chosen does vary, but typically I will decide on a theme and then go through my photos looking for work that will fit into the theme. I take thousands of photos, so this takes a while, but I am convinced that it is one of the best ways, as I photograph work that really strikes me – no matter if I think it will fit in a show or not. Then, I have a collection of images that is truly remarkable, and if some fit my theme, perfect! If not, I’ll read art blogs, look at Instagram, and of course, I explore what’s going on with the Brooklyn art scene – so much creativity comes out of Brooklyn! I even did a show called “From the Borough to the Beach: Brooklyn Based Art” because there is just so much. I try to choose work that will truly surprise and impress our visitors.

Curating exhibitions involving artists from all over the world has given you a chance to explore different cultures. What would you say about the differences and similarities between American, European and Asian art?

I think each quality artwork comes from all over the world and I’m lucky to have the ability to show art from around the globe and to work with people from different cultures. But the majority of work in our exhibitions is American, simply for the fact that shipping costs will dictate how many international artists we can show.

Old School Square Cornell Museum, installation shot, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Old School Square Cornell Museum, installation shot, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Sam Tufnell, Dada Lighthouse, resin, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Sam Tufnell, Dada Lighthouse, resin, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum

Your latest curatorial project is currently on exhibit at the Cornell Museum. Can you tell me more about “Lit?”

The “Lit” exhibition features contemporary artists who use light in some way to express their creative vision. Most people will immediately think “neon,” and while we are showing a few incredible neon works, there is a great deal more here. The exhibition features about 90 light pieces; and only about 75 of these works require electricity. We have works that are very loud visually, almost screaming from the walls like Olivia Steele’s larger-than-life neon works and Chris Bracey’s buzzing neon sign works. Then we have more subtle pieces, such as oil paintings of candles by Valentin Popov, and the beautiful, intricate silverpoint orbs lit from within by Carol Prusa (Carol will actually be giving an Artist Talk on August 25 at the museum). I wanted to put together a show that surveyed the trend of using light in the art world, and I’m proud of this show for that. There are emerging artists and established artists, works that sell for $500 and then works that sell for $40,000, works that are a couple of inches high and others that stand 10 feet tall. It’s interesting and entertaining.

Has it been particularly challenging to install all these works, some I imagine quite fragile and others quite expensive?

“Lit” was certainly one of our most challenging shows to install, since most of the works required electricity. Top that off with the fact that we are a 100-year old historic building! My installation team did an exquisite job with this show. I found out, rather quickly, that my installation specialist had been an electrician early in his career! He spent hours wiring the pieces and making sure everything would run fine. The larger neon pieces required our installation team, as well as a neon team from Miami, to help install the works. We had one piece from a UK artist with a European voltage and we had to rewire the piece to work here in the US. It was intense, but we all learned so much. The end result is this exciting, vibrant show!

Sam Tufnell, Gnomes, resin, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum
Sam Tufnell, Gnomes, resin, Courtesy Old School Cornell Museum

What has been the public’s response to a topic so different from the last one?

The last show we did was “Wild,” and people responded positively to our support of “The Watering Hole Foundation.” The show featured contemporary works that celebrated the natural world and had many conceptual pieces mixed with works by artists from the Plein Air Palm Beach painting society. Our audience seems to like the variation in our exhibition program – which we start all over with a completely different vision and installation. I think “Lit” gives them just that.

Ask yourself a question pertaining to the subject of our current conversation and give yourself an answer.

What is the most rewarding thing about your job?

The opportunity to show an artist’s work that has never been shown in a museum before is one of the greatest experiences of this job. I’m lucky to work for an organization led by a CEO who trusts the direction of the museum and supports me wholeheartedly when I bring in lesser known, emerging artists. For example, I had the pleasure of exhibiting an installation by Elizabeth Jordan that had never been seen outside her Brooklyn studio. I think the experience both she and I had of watching visitors marvel at the installation was one that we will always cherish. It was deeply rewarding to see her vision come to life, and for Liz to watch visitors marvel at her work.

Deianira Tolema

Deianira Tolema

Deianira Tolema is an Italian writer based in Salerno, Italy. She’s intrigued by culturally, historically relevant and meaningful contemporary art that challenges conventions. Her goal is to explore everything innovative and out of the ordinary concerning the socio-psychological and conceptual aspects of art-making.

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