What images come to mind when you think of love?
It's almost too much to even think about that question. Do you imagine some distillation of a feeling focused in a gesture like this Elliot Erwitt picture? Or something simpler, a screenshot of a Stevie Nicks lyric or a schmaltzy Instagram poem? The above photo of a series of roses?
Artist and curator Rachel Stern is used to posing that question and is hoping to scratch the surface of it in LOVE 2016, opening tonight at Columbia University's LeRoy Neiman Gallery. The group exhibition includes nearly 50 artists all engaging in the ideas of love and eros; it's intended as a survey of what love looks like now and hopes to come closer to a sense of how it might be defined, or accept that maybe the idea is impossible to pigeonhole. I recently got to walk through a preview of the show in its installation and talk to Stern about the process of peeling through different peoples associations of the word.
VICE: Why did you choose to curate a show on the crazy, expansive topic of love? It sounds exhausting to me so I'm really curious.
Rachel Stern: It has been exhausting. When I was an undergraduate, I ran a photo blog that was surrounded around the idea of grouping photographs based on topics rather than historical moments or cultural context. They would be pictures of dogs, food, or pictures from Russia—really weird, broad categories. I think from that, I realized the category I was most interested in was romantic photographs so I had an idea to start a journal about that; they ended up taking a few different forms, all of which never really made it past their InDesign files.
Yeah, I have a lot of those lying around.
Yeah, mostly because I'm not really a publication person, I'm not a designer, I'm not good at getting type and information right.
The printed format doesn't really work that well for me. My work questions what love is or looks like, or how people get it or why people want it, how it function or what it can be called. It is impossible to define and since it's undefinable, I wanted to see how everybody thinks it looks like and maybe through there, we can find points of consensus or diversion of points that explain each other. I like the idea of saying that, "Let's have a show about love," is like saying, "Let's have a show about air." It is almost impossible with the name, so it really becomes more about who are these people, why is their image of love important, and why are some of the images are particularly resonant to me.
Did you find it really difficult to represent a broad range of artists?
Yes, I wake up every night with an anxiety attack about somebody that I didn't ask to be in the show that should be here. I was also interesting to me to see what the list looked like because I put them together naturally and the first iteration was almost all gay white men. It was alarming to me to count and realize that I had twenty-something artists and only six of them were women. That was a year ago when I first wrote the list down, then it became a question of breaking it down: Why did that happen and what was the thought process that lead to that? It became a way to think of people to ask that might surprise me, that wouldn't be something I knew in the beginning. So for some of the works, I didn't know what they would like like until they came out of the box here in the gallery.
What was the most surprising work that came out of this?
I think Peter Clough's. He was one of the last people who I asked to be in the show, it was like a last-minute thing because I saw a piece of his which was a rock with eyes on it, and I asked for that piece. He said we couldn't put that piece in because of specific reasons but he would make something special. Then he had us to leave him a space on the wall of a certain dimension. I was nervous because his work takes a lot of different forms but it's usually video. It could look like anything and his space was this huge gap on the wall where everything was hung and we has no idea what to expect. He sauntered in on Friday morning and popped it on the wall and it was amazing.
Do you have any go-to image about love for you?
So many. More than an image, the curatorial statement has that Stevie Nick's line from "Designs of Love," which is a line that I think of a lot. The first time I heard it was when I was alone in Brussels—I like to travel alone because it lets you be melancholy, write down notes, and be really romantic—I, no joke, must have listened to it 3,000 times. I was just looking at the beauty of the place and thinking about how you define love.
I think about all the specific artists in the show and whenever I think of love, in Jason Lazurus's project Too Hard to Keep, especially, I think of images of loss first, it seems to be something that had meant something first.
He is somebody I invited less for the specific work and more because it is a practice that is about love on a large scale. He could put any work into the show and it would more than satisfy the topic of conversation. When I did a studio visit with him before he moved to Chicago, he had a whole wall of Too Hard to Keep and he had carved these dashes on the floor. He found some people that were important to him for different reasons in the public record: a rural doctor, a jazz musician... he works in a historical ramble. He used the typographical setting either on their tombstone or on their document for the dashes between the birth and death date and carved them into granite monuments that sat on the floor. It became a graveyard of their lives because the dashes represented the span of their lives.
Some of this, including the poetry, will be published in MATTE. How did you select the poetry and writing for it?
You couldn't do a show about love without love poems, or without flowers—they are a given. We have those covered right off the bat with MATTE's wallpaper. Paul Legault is a poet who I collaborate with all the time, usually when there's writing to be accompanied with my photographs, we do something together. He wrote the poetry that is written on the LeRoy Neiman Gallery wall and the other poems are from my cousin, Natasha Ochshorn, who writes young adult fiction. She writes these poems on Instagram and they functioned as a diary over the past several years. So we curated out a dated collection of those poems that work throughout as little ties along with Yoshie Sakai's heart works.
I feel like this is an endless sort of project which is what's so exciting. It's a theme that could evolve into a HUGE catalogue.
I would love to keep it going, I want to make a LOVE 2017 and on and on.
Look at a selection from LOVE 2016 below:
LOVE 2016 will have its opening reception tonight from 5 to 7 PM. The show will be on view at LeRoy Neiman Gallery until February 17, 2016.
Rachel Stern is an artist and curator based in NYC. You can follow her work here.