Hunters and collectors

Two high concept shows take the meta approach to curating
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Tauba Auerbach's OKS from
"The Exhibition Formerly Known as Passengers"

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REVIEW It wasn't so long ago that the term "curated" moved from dusty archive territory to popular lexicon. When did curated databases, boutique merchandise, and Netflix queues become commonplace? In the Bay Area, more than one school offers a master's degree in "curatorial practice" — but who has a concise description of what that really means? The term has become elastic, perhaps because there's too much material — of all sorts — to deal with in contemporary culture. Someone's gotta figure out how to marshal and present it coherently.

Two current high-concept group exhibitions are equally about their curatorial premises and respective curators — Henry Urbach and Jens Hoffman — as the objects on display. Both have extended titles — "246 and Counting: Recent Architecture + Design Acquisitions" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and "Passengers" and "The Exhibition Formerly ... ," at the Wattis Institute at California College of the Arts — and will evolve during their runs into 2009. Both are activated by transparent systems that generate their form.

"246 and Counting" includes every object Urbach, SFMOMA's Helen Hilton Raiser curator of architecture and design, acquired during his first two years at the museum. In the wall label, he admits the show "aims to focus our attention on collection building." It's not a stretch to say it has something to do with shopping: Urbach, who previously ran a commercial gallery in Chelsea, NYC, admits as much in the audio guide: "To shop well is half my job" (the other is to experiment with "curatorial practice"). And the presentation will grow to include each new piece he buys before "246" closes. The exhibition itself is a surprisingly refreshing take on the "collection show," the homely, hometown sibling to the bigger traveling exhibit.

Playing out on low platforms and arranged chronologically based on the date the works were purchased or given, "246"<0x2009>'s structured format ironically allows for a degree of irreverence. Urbach leans framed photographs by Richard Barnes against the wall, stacks 1986 Beosystem stereo equipment, and splays silkscreen posters by the beloved activist nun, Sister Corita, on the floor under transparent Plexiglas boxes. It's the same means used to showcase an iPhone, a donation from Apple, credited to Jonathan Ive. The fact that many of us have one makes for an automatic entry point.

The objects are identified on laminated cards, so the display initially resembles a high-end vintage store or the apartment of an aesthete/design guru — the format affords an approachable sense of personality. Urbach's gesture is one of exposure — of the museum's hierarchy and of his own sensibility. He uses this to assert a curatorial identity, and the narrowed focus makes for satisfying, authored viewing. If there's an inclusion you question, you know who's to blame.

The former director of exhibitions at London's Institute of Contemporary Art, Hoffman — who just completed his first year of programming at Wattis — expresses a similar tastemaker sensibility. The contemporary art has a more experimental vibe because the gallery doesn't collect. It feels as if Hoffman selected his picks from international art fairs.

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