Ciara Ennis' last three exhibitions at the Pitzer College Galleries, where she is both director and curator, have either directly or indirectly, obliquely and from varied points of practice and investigation, questioned notions of curating. “I have always been interested in challenging traditional notions about what curating is and could be,” she says. She addresses the concerns central to curators: How are archives conceived? What is included? What is rejected?
This perspective has informed her practice from early on. “I was lucky enough to study with curators like Matthew Higgs whose practice -- highly visible at the time in alternative spaces around London -- was committed to finding new exhibitionary forms and strategies that challenged tired hierarchies and elitist practices,” she says.
Interested in how exhibition practices and collections can reinforce or unravel dominant cultural narratives or posit alternate sites for culture, Ennis says that “art, mediated through a critical curatorial practice, not only has the potential to contribute meaningfully to social change, but also a responsibility. As such,” she says, “underpinning all of my curatorial thinking and work is a firm commitment to a cultural politics that critically examines existing power structures and the asymmetries therein.”
“Wunderkammer,” organized by Ennis in 2015, looked from a contemporary perspective into the display and collection practices of early museums. “'Wunderkammer' allowed me to explore curating, and its progressive potential, through a 15th century lens and to highlight the carefully policed art world boundaries that dictate who, and what, can be shown in exhibitions,” she says.
"Blacklisted: A Planted Allegory (Herbarium)," Jenny Yurshansky’s installation exhibited within “Wunderkammer,” relied on the scientific, taxonomical structures of early museums to address politics in a way that resonates for Pitzer College and the communities surrounding it, as well as for the entire Los Angeles region. A site-specific project of identifying and collecting plants, found on the Claremont Colleges campuses (of which Pitzer is a member), considered invasive, or non-native, "Blacklisted" culminated in an index of non-native plants introduced into the region through successive waves of immigration and global commerce, raising very specific issues that can be considered metaphors for current thinking on immigration and human migration.
Ennis considers "Blacklisted" a microcosm of the “Wunderkammer” project. Yurshansky’s installation “concerned cultural biases that shape the display and organization of a museum’s artifacts as well as their acquisition policies. The notion of ‘invasive,’ imposed as an authoritative system, was a useful tool to explore other hierarchies and relations of dominance and subordination like race, gender, sexuality, and class,” Ennis says.
In the fall of 2015, Ennis exhibited Kang Seung Lee’s ongoing long term project, "Untitled (Artspeak?)" in the galleries’ project space. It was another step in her exploration of hierarchical relationships; although, it applied to the virtual space of the “art world” rather than to a specific site. Lee asked various writers and critics to re-author a page, coincident with the year of their birth, of "Art Speak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords" (1st edition, 1990), the popular art world survey, allowing for a queering of perspective on the art world to include women and artists of color. “'Untitled (Artspeak?)' provided a perfect opportunity to debate the politics of the art world, its professionalization, structural biases, and increased collusion with the capitalist market, all of which have had significant impact on artistic and curatorial practice,” Ennis says.
Returning again to a specific site, in this case, of changes exerted by human intervention on habitat and the landscape, Ennis’ most recent effort, co-curated with art historian Bill Anthes, was “The Ocelots of Foothill Boulevard.” “We invited Mark Dion, Jessica Rath, and Dana Sherwood to respond to an intensely visceral site -- an abandoned 1930s Claremont College infirmary that had been firebombed in the '70s and then boarded up. Although loosely grouped under the theme of the Anthropocene, the artists were given full reign to interpret the site as they liked,” Ennis says.
Dion, known for assembling collections from cast off materials and other artifacts, excavated the infirmary as a nexus of human and animal activity, accumulating old medical supplies, tools and other objects in a worn cabinet that bore the marks of animal traffic. His installation, which resembled a small cabinet of curiosity, linked the taxonomic function of wunderkammers with considerations of site, and why a particular structure falls out of use, no longer a locus of human activity.
The infirmary, slated for demolition -- or erasure -- is situated on land that is now used as a biological field station. In this way, in addition to thinking about human systems affecting geologic change, “Ocelots” engaged in a meta-examination of human systems, focused regionally on the Claremont Colleges as a locus of knowledge.
Ennis’ interest in examining the impositions of authoritative systems and challenging hierarchies reflects a systematic approach and a strong sense of purpose. She concludes, “Embedded within the academy yet reaching far beyond, university galleries [like Pitzer], not only have a responsibility to address such issues but are also among the few remaining venues that can do so, as they are relatively unhampered by the commercial restrains subject to other institutions.”
Top image: Dana Sherwood, "C-Prints," 2016. 21 x 17 inches. Top row, left to right: "Raccoon with Cake," Florida. "Crab-Eating Fox," Brasilia. "Raccoon with Cake," New York. "Raccoon Pair with Hot Dogs," Florida. "White-Tailed Deer at Twilight," New York. Bottom row, left to right: "White-Tailed Deer with Cake," New York. "Raccoon before the Banquet," Florida. "Red Fox Cub and Pâté," Denmark. "Possum with Sausages," Florida. "Tail of the Ocelot," Brasilia. | Photo: Ruben Diaz, courtesy of Pitzer College Art Galleries, Claremont, CA.