The long and confusing road

In 1998, the Guggenheim Museum mounted an exhibit called The Art of the Motorcycle, which was met with a mixed critical reception and accusations of pandering to either BMW (who sponsored the show) or to the unwashed masses (who visited in numbers that would inspire envy in even the most popular painters). The show was conceived by Guggenheim director Thomas Krens, and the extensive catalog was edited by a curator at the museum named Matthew Drutt. At the time, the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim was closed for renovation, so the venerable art institution was sorely lacking in art objects without internal-combustion engines. In response to this odd state of affairs, an assistant curator named Jens Hoffmann organized an exhibit of contemporary art in his office called The Show Must Go On. Hoffmann was promptly pushed out the door by Guggenheim management (“although they laughed about it, it was, ‘you’ve crossed the line and we’re really sorry, but you can’t do that,’” Hoffmann later recalled in an interview with Frieze magazine). For the next several years Hoffmann worked as an independent curator, eventually landing as director of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco.

Hoffmann continued to focus on exhibits that challenge the institutions involved, as well as standard curatorial approaches. For Exhibitions of an Exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York, he asked four curators to write exhibition notes, thus offering four possible readings of his arrangement of artwork. He began curating A Show That Will Show That a Show Is Not Only a Show at The Project in Los Angeles on opening day, so that the run of the show offered a window into the process of his curatorial practice.

Since his days at the Guggenheim, Hoffmann has kept in touch with Drutt, now director of Artpace San Antonio, who invited him to take over the Hudson (Show)Room (often curated by Drutt himself) with his latest curatorial adventure. For this project, Hoffmann explores the mythology of the road spawned by the development of the United States highway system. Again, he has launched a serious challenge to both the normal Artpace aesthetic, and the expected format of a contemporary art exhibit.

Anyone who is familiar with Artpace, a major force in San Antonio’s contemporary art scene, will probably be thrown off balance by Hoffman’s On the Road. Although it is littered with works by contemporary art icons like Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, Ant Farm, and John Baldessari, it is laid out like an educational exhibit you might see at the Witte Museum or the Institute of Texan Cultures. Two floor-to-ceiling Texas flags frame the exhibit information, bright-red tags give artwork details, a tumbleweed sits on the floor. The artwork is densely installed. The exhibit title, taken from Jack Kerouac’s novel, mimics the design of an Easy Rider film poster. A small screening room at the back of the Hudson (Show)Room is used to show feature movies dealing with the road, such as Natural Born Killers, Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The Grapes of Wrath, and even David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (visitors can request screenings of any of the 11 movies on tap).

A key component of On the Road is a road trip that the curator took around Texas (avoiding the eastern part of the state for some reason), where he collected objects contained in two display cases: a Lone Ranger flashlight, pressed flowers from the border near El Paso, a Smokey Bear comic book, an old Lone Star Beer can. Accompanying each object is a blue tag with a little story about Hoffmann’s relationship to it, many of them quite silly. The tag for a signed John Wayne photograph describes how Hoffmann never had much interest in Wayne or his movies, being turned off by the actor’s machismo and his conservative political views, but decided to “give him a break for the show and include this photo.” Next to a jar of sand he collected on a brief foray into New Mexico’s White Sands National Park, he notes, “I hear it’s illegal to take the sand, I guess it just blew into the jar.” Hoffmann has compared his curatorial approach to The Simpsons, “intelligent shows with mass appeal,” and I can certainly imagine a visitor normally put off by Artpace’s intellectual airs finding an entryway to the art (and perhaps even the institution) through these display cases. He deserves credit for organizing an exhibition that mixes bold design, personal narrative, and contemporary art in a genuinely unique way.

But what of the intelligence of the show? The highway in American culture is a sprawling topic. The Grapes of Wrath, Wild at Heart, On the Road, and John Baldesarri’s “The Backs of All the Trucks Passed While Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, California, Sunday, January 20, 1963” have roughly two things in common: American highways and the fact that they are in this show. (And I’m not sure that John Wayne has any significant connection to the highway system.) Yet there are some interesting themes that emerge. One is that many of the images in On the Road deal with signage. As we move across the country at 70mph, we notice primarily the landscape and the signs that call our attention to regional culture, gimmicky businesses, and national brands. There’s an interesting tension between the hand-painted signage for “F.M. Pointer: The Old Reliable House Mover” on a quirky roadside stand photographed by Walker Evans, and the clean repetition of Standard gas stations famously captured by Ruscha. The highway system opened up exposure to the vast regional variety of American culture, and simultaneously began to shut it down.

Among these images I’m seeing precious little that explores the stated subject of the show: “the idea of such a drive as a rite of passage, a journey toward emancipation on the way to a destination that may be largely unknown but which holds the promise of liberating self-discovery.” Hoffmann is the kind of curator who makes you wonder if he’s playing a game: Is the wall text quoted here just a bit of misdirection? A joke on the silly futility of condensing a complex and vexing topic into a couple of paragraphs? That On the Road runs in so many contrary directions may be its ultimate point, but I have to wonder if Hoffmann is a curator with plenty to say about art institutions and little to say about art. •

On the Road
Through Sep 5
(210) 212-4900


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