Unearthing The Gems That History Has Mistakenly Written Out
The idea of ‘curating the edges’ came up when trying to describe my practice. It doesn’t have a centre as such but it is always focused on either women or queer artists. Artists, who partly for questions of gender, get left behind.
In 2012, I did a project on Leonora Carrington. Carrington was an English surrealist whose mother was Irish. She came from a very privileged background and ran away from home to become Max Ernst’s girlfriend in Paris. André Breton immediately started to publish her writing, she was catapulted into the surrealist world. When Ernst was interned during the war, she went mad and was locked up in a sanitarium in Spain, where she was badly treated. She escaped to Lisbon where she met Ernst—who by then was with Peggy Guggenheim—and married a Mexican diplomat. She spent the rest of her life in Mexico where she became known as la maestra. I came across her through English literature. She wrote “La Debutante”, a short story about sending a hyena to her debutante ball in her place. She tells these stories that are very pointy and critical of high society. She carries that tone into her paintings. She was quite successful as a painter, but one thing I always found interesting, is that on her wikipedia page she was described as the girlfriend of Max Ernst. It was always hard for her, but also for Frida Kahlo, Dora Maar, and many others, to get out from under the shadow of their partners. Carrington always said she was nobody’s muse, she was too busy being an artist. When I came to her work, there hadn’t been a retrospective in 25 years. After Dublin, a portion of the show went to San Francisco with Wendi Norris, but the rest of the tour was canceled after the financial crisis. However, we did a lavish publication that sold out immediately, and it marked very much a resurgence of interest for her practice.
Hennessy’s queer practice, and PhD. Besides gender, and modern women who have been written out of art history, the other ‘edge’ is queer practice. My first exhibition at IMMA was of the work of Isaac Julien in 2005. In 2016, on the centenary of the Irish revolution, I did a show about Patrick Hennessy who was a figurative painter. Born in Ireland in 1915, raised and educated in Scotland, Hennessy went to Paris before WWII and was a student of Fernand Léger. At the outbreak of the war he returned to Ireland and lived pretty much quietly there with his partner Henry Robertson Craig. They travelled substantially around Europe. In the ‘50s they started going to Tangier, Morocco, every year, and settled there in the ‘60s/70s. He died in 1980. He was an artist I only knew in passing, but I would always stop in front of the paintings held in the IMMA collection, and be puzzled by them. Then someone told me Hennessy was gay. Oh! It’s about subjectivity, right! And I kind of rushed back to look at the paintings. I started to research, mainly through the secondary market. What I found was that even in 1939 he was signalling queerness and his alignment to other queer figures in his work, particularly Oscar Wilde. He painted non-explicit male nudes, but also isolation and alienation in a country where you couldn’t express difference. After he went to Tangiers, he began to produce frankly homoerotic portraits of beautiful African men. As I started to unpick the codes of his paintings I realised they were depictions of sex workers, cruising in public parks and saunas. I couldn’t believe what I was finding, a practice so queer, so deliberate and evolved. The publication included other queer artists working at the time in Ireland. A lot of radical images were being made that were ignored, written out, or alluded to negatively. I decided to continue that research in the form of a PhD, which I am working on now. The project attempts to fill in the blanks and foundational history on how queer practice has evolved and has been received in Ireland, but also how this practice links to other ideas of feminist practice. I’m also trying to build bridges between his work and contemporary ideas of trans-semiotics and subjectivities.
Changing gears. I have done a variety of roles at IMMA from administrator through to Head of Department, and I also spent a year working with the Venice Biennale, which was incredibly stimulating and challenging, but my first job in 1998 was running an artist residency studio in County Kerry, the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre, in a famine-abandoned 18th century village. A Dublin entrepreneur and publisher bought it with the intention of restoring the houses and turn them into an artist residency and gallery. I was involved with the fundraising and running two galleries and I had a busy time churning out exhibitions every six weeks. But I realised I was good at it, and good at communicating what the art was about, and selling. I really enjoyed bringing the collector along on a journey, and it was exciting when they put their hands in their pocket to show commitment to an artist’s practice.
IMMA’s building is extremely historic. It’s the first unfortified public building in Ireland. There have been so many wars during the 16th and 17th century, that it took a long time before the British establishment felt confident enough to build an unfortified building. The building is full of character, with a big park, a garden, and a meadow, an incredible site to work in. What’s brilliant about it, is that it has an incredible baroque interior, with a chapel and a dining hall, but it also has many mistakes. It was designed on third-hand accounts of what a Classical building should be like. Possibly the chapel would be my favourite place, partly because there is usually no one in there. Marina Abramovic and Chiharu Shiota performed in it, and I remember the ecstatic reaction of a little girl in front of Shiota’s live-in installation. That would be my highlight, for how evocative the chapel can be and how architecture can drive creativity.
Wall time. There is a south facing wall in the garden where we often congregate at lunch time, if it’s sunny. You get your coffee and you sit on the wall, you chat for half an hour, and then go back to your office. It’s a sort of informal social space—our equivalent of the water cooler.
Making meaning and taking risks. I am less interested in aesthetic concerns than in what we discussed when defining “the edges”. My most recent project, which is now on tour, is the Derek Jarman: “Protest!”. That is another example of curating the edges, because Jarman was a very famous filmmaker, but his original practice was as a painter and a designer, and it had largely been forgotten. The exhibition is about bringing the painting practice to the fore and try to flatten out the hierarchy that we have received about his practice. It was about considering all of his work together in one place. The show travels this December to Manchester Art Gallery, and in 2024 to Yale University. We also produced a significant publication published by Thames & Hudson. When I come up with a proposal about something less known, like Carrington, Hennessy or Jarman’s painting practice, the museum has to take a risk. That’s often the biggest challenge. You need to find the work and the research, deliver the exhibition, it has to be resonant for the audience, and it has to make sense in terms of contemporary practice. The directors of IMMA have always been encouraging and they see the value of the “edges”, but that is not to say that every proposal I make is accepted.
Larger institutions have a bigger reach, and they allow the staff to specialise. When I was running exhibitions in a not-for-profit space, I literally had to drive the truck with the paintings, in some cases drive the nails into the wall, paint the space, put the bottles of wine on the table, sweep the floor, get the press release out, lick the stamps, and then take a shower and put on nice clothes to talk to the collectors. You are always fire-fighting. I remember in my first two weeks working at IMMA, I attended a planning meeting about what was going to happen in three years! I remember relaxing into my chair and thinking: “this is how it’s supposed to be done!”. Not to mention that you have a whole team of colleagues who are bringing in diverse audiences, activating and engaging a broader audience, which is very central to IMMA’s mission.
Breathing life into an exhibition. I made one small exhibition during Covid-19, a four-room photography show that has only been seen by a very small audience and no critics for five weeks when it opened in September. The only platform that has been seen is the 360-degree tour, on our website. It made me realise that staging the exhibition is just one part of the curatorial process. The audience—tours, lectures, meeting the public, inviting the artists, hearing feedbacks—breathes life into an exhibition. I have really missed that in the past year.
Fun during a pandemic? I have renewed my love for the telephone (not zoom) with long, rambling, silly conversations with my friends, as if we were teenagers again. No one has any news, so you all have to be creative to energise the conversation.
I am a gardener. I grow ornamental plants and I also have a vegetable garden. I try to grow unusual things that you can’t get in the supermarket, and have failed at plenty of things! But I have a glut of Cardoons (or artichoke thistle) at the moment. You harvest them in winter and use the ribs of the leaves. Baked au gratin, the flavour is like a bitter artichoke and it’s gorgeous with fish or pork. Gardening is relaxing and absorbing, it’s also a very hopeful practice because you imagine what will happen at the same time next year, or what a tree is going to be like in 20 years. It grounds me and gives me a sense of my place in the world.
The academic book I have recently loved is Eve Sedgwick “Between Men”. It’s a book from 1985 where she reads the relationships between men in English literature, thinking about how power, intimacy and desire are often triangulated between two men and one woman. Sedgwick asks us to consider how the patriarchy functions to control women, but also to mask the disruptive potential of the homosocial or homosexual. What I loved about it, is that it predates queer theory of the early ‘90s, so she is writing about a subject that hasn’t yet been contested in so many fields. It feels fresh and personal and perhaps less defensive than some of her later works. She reads novels and I read artworks, but she offers me new paths of inquiry at every turn.
To relax I love to read historical biographies. I hate the idea of favourites but if I had to choose it would be “Madame de Pompadour” by Nancy Mitford (1954). She does a great job at researching the history, but ultimately is a fantasist. She imagines herself in the role of the mistress of Louis XV and what you get is this incredible colourful living and breathing account of this woman and her life.
A good future invention would be a teleportation device like they have on Star Trek. It would allow international travel without the carbon footprint!
If I were a collector and I had Jeff Bezos kind of money to collect…I think what his ex-wife, author and philanthropist MacKenzie Bezos has done in the past year—distributing $6billion to not-for-profit organisations—has been extraordinary. I’d try to follow her example. But I think I’d also try to be a patron in the true sense of the word, not simply gathering together objects, but driving culture, supporting ephemeral practices, performance and experimental art. I’d be giving to public institutions without strings attached, so they can concentrate on what they do well and collect responsibly. But I would also support smaller galleries who in times of crisis can be swallowed by blue chips.
If I wasn’t a curator? I would be a gardener.
Curator of Exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA)
Seán Kissane is Curator of Exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Dublin. He describes his practice as ‘curating the edges’, producing deeply researched exhibitions focussed on the work of female and queer artists whose work has been critically neglected. These projects have included major touring exhibitions such as the retrospectives for Derek Jarman, Leonora Carrington, and Mary Swanzy. In 2016 he presented the critically acclaimed ‘Patrick Hennessy: De Profundis’, the first queer reading of Irish modernism. He is currently a PhD candidate at Gradcam, TU Dublin; undertaking research into queer art exhibited in Ireland during and after the Second World War examining how some Irish artists presented divergent images of masculinity that countered prevailing orthodoxies.