Miranda Metcalf became the director of the Contemporary Print Department of Davidson Galleries—one of Seattle's oldest operating galleries—in 2012. Metcalf scored the position while she was technically still earning her MA at the University of Arizona—probably to the envy of everyone in her graduating class—and moved back to her native Seattle to take over the department.
Recently, she's begun taking research trips to Asia and exhibiting the highlights of what she sees. 2015 brought “Contemporary Prints from Thailand” and “Contemporary Japanese Printmakers”, which included a trip to Japan. 2016 brings “Contemporary Chinese Printmakers” (March 3-April 2) and an upcoming Australia-themed exhibit in April.
I joined Metcalf at Davidson last week, where she toured me around “Contemporary Chinese Printmakers” in her black harem-pants jumpsuit. (What proper curator doesn't own a cuffed parachute jumpsuit?) We talked about the freedom of gallery curation, Chinese sexism versus American, and how to jump the Great Firewall of China.
Miranda K. Metcalf (on the right) and gallery intern Xiqian Li at the exhibition opening.
Your academic background is in 16th century European art. But, now you're jet-setting off to Asia to haul back work from the best printmakers working today. What's driving you?
I've always been interested in curating through immersive travel. There's a kind of mind expansion that can happen when you're totally engaged in seeking out a country's contemporary and historical context through its art. Doing a series of international—particularly Asian—exhibits has been on my mind since I took this position.
I have a personal interest in China, not just in its art and culture, but about the Western perspective of it. It's a huge world power that we tend to feel very cut-off from. And I get the sense that there is an almost willful ignorance surrounding China amongst Americans: we seem to reduce Chinese society and culture to stereotypes in a way that we wouldn't dare with, say, Hmong culture or Italian, or Inuit.
In the sense that making wide or uninformed generalizations wouldn't be PC about those cultures, but it's accepted about China?
Absolutely. We often hear, “Oh, France! I love France, it's so beautiful, such accents, such history, wonderful art.” And then, from the same people: “Oh, China – that's where plastic comes from.” When really it's so much more complex, more nuanced than that. Our Cold War media messaging has definitely carried over into the present. While some of those messages aren't wrong, they encourage reductivism, and discourage us from investigating. But, art is a powerful vehicle for cultural exchange, for breaking down assumptions.
"...Maybe they're looking at us and thinking, “how can American art have any meaning when it's all about themselves? When it's not grounded in tradition?"
You had to get old-school when curating this exhibition, since China is basically on a separate internet from the rest of the world. What was your methodology for finding these artists?
The Great Firewall of China was a huge hurdle. With past international exhibitions I could research a country’s contemporary printers online. Even if artists didn't have personal websites there were always professional organizations, academic institutions, and other galleries I could rely on to get an electronic preview of the work. China is different. There's no Facebook, no YouTube, no Google. And that's a problem both ways: artists couldn't look up my gallery to confirm I wasn't a scammer!
Most of the communicating I did was through our amazing intern, Xiqian Li. She did hours of translation for me, and then we used an app called WeChat to communicate with our Chinese artists.
And then I just had to get on the ground. Art Partners—aka Barbara Pitts and Cathy Gill—is a group that facilitates artistic exchanges between Seattle and Wuhan. They connected me with several artists who are professors of printmaking at Hubei University. I learned about the Beijing print scene through two professors at the elite Central Academy of Fine Arts. And I traveled with print-maker Jenny Robinson, who is a bad-ass travel partner.
Did you have a list of artists with whom you wanted to meet or already knew you'd feature once you hit the ground in China?
Not really. That digital barrier was a blindfold. Most everything I did was on-the-fly. I had to look for opportunities as they presented themselves. I saw work in artist studios, galleries, and in private residencies. Anytime I saw a way to see more work I had to jump on it. And once word got around, especially in Wuhan where I gave a gallery talk, people came out of the woodwork to push catalogs into my hands.
What's going on in the Chinese printmaking scene? Are most of the artists you're featuring working as full-time professional artists? Teaching? Working in traditional modes or busting out on their own?
People look to China as the cradle of printmaking. 2,000 years ago there were small carved stamps (chops) used to create signatures, and we often reference those as the first printmaking in the world. Today, there are fine art academies and universities with incredible print studios. That means artists are working at an extremely high level of sophistication and quality. And size was a huge factor: printmaking is physically gigantic in China. The work that gets celebrated is big. I had to set a size limit.
Because three 12' long prints would eat up most of your exhibit space?
Partially. Our collectors are largely private collectors,and these were not home-sized objects. They were made for museums and government buildings. Originally, I had the top-level printers in China on my radar, but their sizes and their prices were just too big for us.
Additionally, those highest-level artists are entrenched in a Chinese value system, in terms of how artwork is considered “good”. It's highly technically skilled, yes, but they also have strong references to the old masters who have come before. That's a barrier to my audience, who doesn't have the context.
Haoyu Xu \ Floating Aimlessly 10 \ 2014, lithograph 15 x 19 inches \ Image courtesy of Davidson Galleries
When I saw the title of the exhibit I admit that I expected a museological overview of the most important printmakers working today in China. Something holistic. But, a good number of these artists are still considered emerging artists, and not all that well-known in China. Do you worry that people will question your curatorial choices?
I didn't set out to get the “best-of” China, or create a perfect survey. That's nearly an impossible task. And what hubris to think I could! The title was supposed to read “Contemporary Chinese Printmakers” rather than “Contemporary Chinese Printmaking.” (Our graphics folks didn't get the memo.) I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I am claiming that this is somehow an inclusive overview of the work coming out of a diverse nation.
I guess my assumption was grounded in personal experience curating for a museum, where every perspective needs to be covered and every choice justified.
While education and information is a crucial part of what we do, as a gallery we're free of the expectation of creating canon. I was more concerned with each work being fantastic, standing alone, than matching a theme or trying to represent an entire scene. This exhibit is more, This is what I saw while I was in this country, what I thought was beautiful and good, and I hope you think so, too.
With the caveat that you're not a tourist bringing home schlock, but a curator with a trained eye.
As a curator, you know what you want. 95% of the time within half a second after you've seen it. But, having said that, I didn't make my decisions standing right there. I brought everything back, had a hard think, consulted with [gallery owner] Sam Davidson, and then made my invitations.
Which works did you know you had to have?
There were a few artists I made concrete promises with while I was there: Hui Zhang and Yan Wang were two. My brain absolutely lit up with their work.
Hui Zhang's work kicks off the show, and his work is a direct challenge of some stereotypes Westerners may carry about China, particularly Asian women. They're depictions of young girls screaming or singing their lungs out—or holding your eye with an absolutely rock-solid gaze. I couldn't stop staring back at them.
Part of the reason I responded to those was gaining insight into how hard it is for women in China. Jenny and I worked with a number of young, highly educated women who translated for us at the universities. These were women who'd just returned from studying at the Royal Academy in London—operating at an extremely high level. I'd ask them if they were looking for a position in one of the Chinese universities, and they'd respond: “oh, we've asked, but they say there are enough women working there.”
It was mind boggling. I deal with my fair share of sexism as the young, female director of my department here in Seattle, but it's subtle. This was just a factual, up-front thing.
We worked with a translator named Mia while we were there, and I asked her whether she would translate for me at my gallery lecture. Two of the male trip coordinators caught wind of that, and absolutely chewed her out—in Chinese—right in front of me. Mia later explained what they said: she was stepping above her station, that the gallery was a professional academic institution and wouldn't want her there, and that surely they'd have a better translator on hand. Turns out? They didn't have one. Mia had to scramble to step in at the last minute, and did an amazing job.
Were you largely exempt from that kind of overt sexism, being professionals and guests?
I wasn't busted down because of my gender, though I was second-guessed a lot. The overt stuff was actually more ageist. Jenny Robinson is a print-maker in her late 50's, I'm a curator in my early 30's—and everyone seemed to think we were alternately too old and too young to be doing what we were there to do!
Too old to be an artist?
People told Jenny, “Oh, you're so strong!” when she carried her bags around. She's not decrepit! She operates a huge press in her studio!
At my gallery I'm often questioned, but usually people's reactions are: “You're the director? Oh, well, good on you!” In China, it was more: “I hear you're a young doctor of printmaking...are you sure?” Like it was factually wrong. By the end I was like, “Yep, that's me, doctor of printmaking, whaddya want?”
I'm glad you didn't revert to the womb while you were there , and that Jenny didn't wither away into nothing.
By the end, she dubbed herself 'One Foot in the Ground Robinson'.
A solid amount of the work in the exhibit doesn't overtly reference China at all, and is reflective of personal experience, or abstract. Others are culture and country-specific. Is the mix an intentional choice? Or are there connections that I'm missing?
I was intentionally not looking for work that “looks Chinese”, but instead for what was compelling and spoke well of the scene. But, this was complicated by a couple of factors: that the visual culture of Chinese is very distinct, and that the government has tight hold on what art you see. Being an outsider and of course only spending 10 days there I have no way of knowing which is the chicken and which is the egg with this. There are certain themes which are approved and if an artist makes imagery which fits into these themes they are much more likely to get their work seen and therefore for me to see it.
Is there work in this show that would not be able to be exhibited in China? Too politically sensitive?
I don't think so. All of these artists operate within the academic sphere, which is cozy with the government.
I did try to discuss censorship in recent decades with a few the artists I met there. It was difficult for them to talk about, not only because it's sensitive politically and personally, but because many of the artists have lived and trained within this culture of institutionalized censorship. They've learned to grow around the borders placed before them, and have found a meaningful practice within them. The attitude was, “Yes of course it sucks, no I don’t really want to talk about it. Talk about what I have done, not what I am kept from doing. That is a much more interesting conversation.”
So, it's like asking an artist why they don't use the color flirth in their paintings. What's flirth? They've never seen it, so why should they miss it or worry about it? The paintings are still representations of their lives and emotions, and convey a message.
When artists develop their whole careers in that context, this is their practice and reality, and that's what we should focus on. We have this assumption that they are yearning against the system and dreaming of getting out, but maybe they're looking at us and thinking, “how can American art have any meaning when it's all about themselves? When it's not grounded in tradition?”
To wrap up, any long-term lessons you've carried away from the experience of curating this show?
Don't try to open an exhibit with Chinese artists a few weeks after Chinese New Year. You won't get the work until a day before the exhibit opens, and you'll get some gray hairs waiting for it.
Contemporary Chinese Printmakers runs through April 2nd. It features work by Feng Zheng,Fan Fang, Liao Yang, Guangxi Wen, Jiantan Wu, Xiang Li, Wei Zhang, Yan Wang, Yun Fei Ling, Lian Zhang, Yijie Lu, Hui Zhang, Beini Mu, Mengmeng Tan, Lan Bao, and Haoyu Xu.
— author Sarra Scherb--aka Brass Archer—is a writer, gallerist, curator and designer in Seattle. She has worked with four Seattle art galleries and five Washington museums on exhibits, research, writing and curation. She's written and designed for publications including The Stranger, The Toast, Stackedd Magazine, Weave Magazine and the Seattle Art Dealers Association. She can usually be found wearing suspenders, too much lipstick, and a squint.