A Romantic Comedy hosted by Wallplay

Steven Pestana in dialogue with Art Spiel

Installation View, A Romantic Comedy. L to R: Kevin Frances, Andrew Allison, Amanda Thackray

A Romantic Comedy, co-curated by Steven Pestana and Sophia Sobers , is a large-scale installation-based group exhibition which explores the mystery and ambiguity of romance in the 2020s through the actions and objects of everyday life. The opening takes place during Armory Weekend and the show runs throughout the end of March. Steven Pestana describes for Art Spiel the curators’ background, elaborates on the genesis of the show, then gives some background on its host, Wallplay, and its venue at 25 Kent street in Williamsburg.

AS: You curated A Romantic Comedy with Sophia Sobers. What would you like to share about your curatorial backgrounds?

SP: We’re both mainly visual artists and consider our medium as immersive installation. In our view, many large scale installations – at least the kind that we are drawn to – involve a curated selection of objects that somehow transform a space. So, in a way, curating is a natural extension of our practice. We tried to approach this show in an experiential way as well, allowing the pieces to exist on their own terms, but also conceiving of them as fitting into a larger whole.

From a more conventional perspective, Sophia has curated about one group show a year for the past three years, and I curated a handful of shows while I was still a student at Rhode Island School of Design. Sophia’s work has tended to center around new media, art and science, and artists working with natural themes. I’m more drawn to interdisciplinary work with an emphasis on artwork that creates its own poetic, layered frames of meaning and interpretation.

AS: What is the origin and premise behind this large-scale installation group show?

SP: Sophia began working with Wallplay in December of 2018, with an installation of her own work called Power Tools. This opened up a warm relationship with Wallplay. Later, in November of last year, we had the opportunity to submit a curatorial proposal for a large vacant retail space that still had all the original colonial ornamental motifs from its previous retail life. There were sweeping wooden bannisters, a unique pink and blue plaid carpet pattern, and frame-like niches where the clothes hung. It was an unusual setting for showing artwork, but one that we thought we could incorporate into a new context.

We didn’t have a curatorial focus yet, but we had a great title in mind that we got the idea for around the same time that we saw the space. I had given my Interactive Media students at Pratt an article by Roberta Smith on the subject of the Guggenheim’s 2008 Relational Aesthetics survey theanyspacewhatever. Her piece was called A Romantic Comedy Unspools at the Guggenheim. I give this reading to my students alongside her husband, Jerry Saltz’s 2011 article The Long Slide: Museums as Playgrounds. Both articles emerged from the high watermark of Relational Aesthetics in NYC institutional settings, but are spaced out by about three years. We found it interesting how the two critics approach the subject matter with different levels of enthusiasm, Roberta Smith embracing the moment joyfully, albeit measuredly so, and Jerry Saltz casting a more pragmatic view on the playground-ification of museum settings.

While there is no artwork in the Relational Aesthetics vein in our own show, and we ended up staging the exhibition in a venue different than our original proposal, we liked the ring of Smith’s title and found it particularly inspirational in light of this couple’s contrasting outlooks. We decided to explore the various connotations of the word “romance”, using as an entryway this waning genre of film so commonly shortened to “romcom”.

AS: The exhibition features over 50 works which include miniature and colossal installations, paintings, and sculptures. Tell me a bit about your curatorial decision-making process for this large-scale show.

SP: We approached the show using a very conventional curatorial toolbox. First, we created a 3D model of the space, which helped us envision how the space could be navigated. The pathways we envisioned helped us not only to develop an idea of dramatic sitelines and thematic divisions of the space, but also a loose narrative around various facets of romance. We were very fortunate that many of the artists in the show were generous with their time, skills and enthusiasm. They helped us build and paint walls in an otherwise totally vacant space, and brought a palpable energy and shared camaraderie that is unique to creative endeavors like this.

In terms of curatorial narrative, we envisioned the entrance to the exhibition as the beginning stages of courtship, the central area of the show as a more settled but still vibrant and lively romance, and the conclusion as the hidden, perhaps darker side of intimacy, sometimes falling over into the abstract and inchoate.

In all of our selections, we respected the artists intention but also tried to view their work through the lens of the exhibition theme.

AS: Can you give me an example?

SP: For example, in our first area, Andrew Allison’s enormous, surreal interpretation of a solitary, orgiastic campsite, when considered in the theme of this show, seems to burst with anarchic libidinal energy. Andrew Woolbright’s monumental canvas Baroque Brut is lush with the fecundity of romance, bursting flowers, shimmering pearls, and ornate trimmings all painted in dripping hues of pink, red and gold. We put this piece in our central area, viewing it as a sort of window into the luxuriance of romance. In our third section, Tianyi Zhang’s 99 Agreements captures Zhang in various costumes and situations, always saying “yes”. It’s clear in many of the situations that “yes” is not really what she means.

SP: Can you shed some light on the 5.000 sqft. Curatorial centerpiece, envisioning an eccentric domestic space?

SP: As we were putting together the show, we were surprised to discover that much of the iconography of our current moment in art is actually very domestic. When we go to galleries and art fairs we feel like we see lots of representations of interiors and the implied presence of shared lives: furniture such as sofas, house plants, wallpaper, pets, and the unmistakable signature of suburban architecture. We decided to assemble a collection of this type of imagery into a home-like environment underscoring the artists’ idiosyncratic takes on the subject. Many of the selections take ordinary signifiers of the home into a more offbeat and unexpected direction, like Amanda Nedham’s bathtub made of paper, AJ Liberto’s miniature spiral staircase, and Sammy Bennett’s chair of paraphilic infantilism backed by a seemingly innocuous silkscreened flower pattern. These pieces fit perfectly together alongside Estefania Velez’s high-chroma paintings of domestic plants and Megan Stroech’s large scale collages inspired by Home & Garden magazine spreads.

Perhaps more surprisingly, we also encountered a sort of infrastructure of romance. Just across from our imagined domestic interior, Kyle Hittmeier’s cast paper and CGI animation recreate the exterior threshold of Paul Manafort’s broken, abandoned home in Carroll Gardens. Neighboring that piece, Sandra Erbacher’s dystopian workplace installation evokes the kind of corporate environments which seem so antithetical to romance, and yet where so many relationships are built and crumble. We also saw an interesting contrast between Jon Lausten’s wind turbines outfitted with the common home radiator and Victoria Crayhon’s decrepit movie marquees emblazoned with the titles of romantic scenes that never happened.

Andrew Woolbright, Baroque Brut, 2018
Installation View, A Romantic Comedy. L to R: AJ Liberto, Sammy Bennett, Holly McGraw, Jon Laustsen, Amanda Nedham, Estefania Velez, Garrett Gould, Megan Stroech
Installation View, A Romantic Comedy. L to R: Sandra Erbacher, Kyle Hittmeier, Tianyi Zhang

AS: Tell me about the location – a 16,000 sq ft. exhibition space at 25 Kent in Williamsburg – and a bit about your host, Wallplay?

SP: The first time we saw 25 Kent, we were overwhelmed and even a little intimidated. It was cavernous and totally raw, and lit only with fluorescent tube lights far overhead. Nevertheless, we fell in love with the potential of the space to be anything, and the picturesque sunlight that floods into the space at most times of the day. What originally started as a project based around the retail marketing of romance and the idea of a better self that it attempts to sell, quickly transformed into something much more rich and layered.

One of the great things about working with Wallplay, from Sophia’s 2018 Power Tools installation, to the initial space we considered for this show, and all the other spaces that they have available, is their potential for housing large-scale projects. Even many of the better known galleries specializing in emerging artists don’t have large exhibition spaces at their disposal.

Many artists we follow gravitate towards large scale work. However, In light of New York City’s cramped apartments, studios, and commercial spaces, large-scale work tends to be marginalized in favor of smaller, essentially portable works that you can leave with and fit into a New York City-sized apartment. As installation artists, Sophia and I think that there is not only room for other kinds of art, but that larger work fills an important void that often remains silent. This has been perhaps our most important goal in this undertaking: to give all the artwork as much space and breathing room as possible. In A Romantic Comedy, this has even amounted to moments that some galleries might consider full solo shows. It also provides an airy, more serene alternative to the jam-packed art fairs of NY Art Week, which open the same week as A Romantic Comedy. The amount of space we have here nearly rivals something like one floor of the Whitney Museum. For projects like this, that amount of space is more or less unheard of anywhere, much less New York. Having that kind of resource available to artists pushing the boundaries and scale of their media and subject matter is like a dream come true.

Installation view, A Romantic Comedy. R to L: Jon Laustsen, Justin Wood, Jon Laustsen, Andrew Woolbright, Sandra Erbacher, Kay Healy

All photo courtesy of Sophia Sobers

Curated by Steven Pestana & Sophia Sobers
Opening Reception: Wednesday, March 4 2020, 6–9PM
Exhibition runs: February 25th–March 31st, 2020
25 Kent, 25 Kent Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY 11249

List of Participating Artists:

Andrew Allison, Kajahl Benes, Sammy Bennett, Joe Bochynski, Adam David Brown, Lauren Comito, Victoria Crayhon, Sandra Erbacher, Flyweight Projects presenting Irini Miga, Kevin Frances, Garrett Gould, Kay Healy, Kyle Hittmeier, Jared Hoffman, Jon Laustsen, AJ Liberto, Haley Matis-Uzzo, Cleo Miao Holly, McGraw Amanda, Nedham Caleb, Nussear Barbara, Rink Megan, Stroech Amanda, Thackray Estefania, Velez Justin Wood, Andrew Woolbright, Tianyi Zhang.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com