Justine Ludwig, Assistant Curator of the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, never had to confront the question: “What will I do when I grow up?” Her grandmother was an eclectic collector of art she loved, with no specific period but from all over the world, and her parents trundled her through countless museums on her little girl’s legs. “I used to make paintings and try to sell them to the neighbors,” she laughs. “When I was eight and my sister was four, she hated looking at paintings, and I used to try to lecture her on what we saw!” Her love of art in all its forms has led her on a straight path to where she now has the opportunity to mount shows of the artists she considers the best of what is on the contemporary world stage.
Ludwig’s family has residence in Switzerland, where her grandmother still lives. “My mother is Swiss and my father is American. Once I began school in Lexington Massachusetts, we spent the summer months in Switzerland and France.” Ludwig studied studio art and art history at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine, and graduated in 2008, coming here shortly thereafter. She had already worked with Raphaela Platow, the CAC Director, at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. Then the assistant curatorial position at the CAC opened up, and Ludwig applied. “When I got a chance to work with Raphaela in Cincinnati, I jumped at it,” she says.
The Contemporary Arts Center itself is one of a handful of non-collecting art centers in America. Museums typically have collections; galleries offer shows. However, the word “museum” is simply defined as an institution that is dedicated to the muses. A modified version of British-Iraqi Deconstructivist architect Zaha Hadid’s usual boldly asymmetrical design is apparent, and often the somewhat disorienting spaces assert themselves when one is trying to concentrate on the art. Those who hang shows there readily admit to the challenges. Lack of traditional squares and rectangles, says Ludwig, is something she has come to enjoy. “I love the architecture. It presents a great challenge. You can’t hang things here like you would in a cube. Artists, when they come in, are first really frustrated, but then it inspires fantastic work. You see really interesting solutions coming from artists on how to use the building.” She does admit to rare times when she too can experience those challenges.
“I’ve spent time at six different museums and found that what really attracted me was curating. I took part in a wide range of activities.” Ludwig says she has interned or worked at The Museum of Fine Arts Boston; List Visual Arts Center at MIT; Danforth Museum of Art; Rose Art Museum; Colby College Museum of Art; and finally here at the CAC.
Here she says she is able to pursue art in which she is interested – which brings up a question. What if her interests and board or management approval diverge? She answers, “I don’t have to do that: Raphaela curates her own exhibitions and I curate mine. We also discuss the overall vision of the season to make sure the exhibitions lead to interesting dialogues. What happens sometimes is that somebody else comes up with a name or an idea, and if it’s something that I am drawn to or inspired by, I can work with it. For example, I curated an exhibition called Rosson Crow: Myth of the American Motorcycle.” (https://aeqai.org/2010/12/rosson-crow/) She says that for a long time the idea of a motorcycle show had been around. “Then I came on board, and the idea came up again. I said, ‘well, you’re in luck, I love motorcycles.’” She contacted Crow, and for a year prior to the show, Crow immersed herself in biker culture. Pairing Crow’s exuberant work with actual Harley Davidsons and Indians, painted by local biker artist, Dauber, the show came together and opened November 6, 2010.
Does that mean that the CAC focuses mainly on artists outside Cincinnati? “No,” says Ludwig, “we have a local focus too. Last year we did three local exhibitions. Right now we have an exhibition (a three-part series on video art) that was curated by two local men: Jordan Tate and Aaron Walker. Jordan teaches at The University of Cincinnati, and Aaron Walker is heavily involved in the DIY (do-it-yourself) art theme here. He is one of the founders of the now defunct Art Space (U·turn Art Space) and now works at Third Party Gallery (2159 Central Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45214 – ‘Third Party aims to explore and foster contemporary forms of art-making and critical thought.’)”
Ludwig too was involved with U-turn (https://aeqai.org/2011/06/looking-back/), “in the capacity of writing some of their catalogues, and I have shown work with them.” Ludwig also created and appeared in a video installation there performing Butoh, a dance form that appeared in Japan after WWII and is traditionally done in white body makeup. Her piece, I’ll Love You Forever, was part of the final show, Aloha Means Both Hello and Goodbye: June 4 – June 25, 2011.
“I do love the DIY art scene here, and I try to be involved with it as much as possible.” These galleries are primarily artist-grown, and Ludwig says she is presently writing an essay for Third Party’s catalogue for their recent exhibition. She occasionally writes for other publications. Upbeat about art in the Cincinnati region, she says, “We have a fantastic art scene here, and it’s something we have to support.”
Does the Cincinnati art landscape have a distinctive character? “There are far more artist-run galleries (co-ops) here than in other places. There are many talented artists here, and we have great spaces here, like The Weston (The Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery), that provide a platform for contemporary art in the city. Too there are good art programs: The Art Academy has a wonderful program; DAAP too has a superb program. The museums are excellent resources and give young artists the opportunity to look at important work.”
In pursuit of ever-wider knowledge, Ludwig embraces travel. “I fund-raised money to spend three months in Mumbai, where I did just studio visits, trying to understand how the art scene works there. Since I’m interested in international contemporary art, I wanted to see how it is being treated in a country that has a rather old fashioned approach to art education. There you basically can study painting and sculpture, and that’s it. However, some of the most exciting work that is being done right now in new media is being done in India. In the Shilpa Gupta show (http://www.aeqai.com/articles/052010a.htm) we did, you could see that the art is very much media based and forward thinking. She is one of the strongest artists in India today, I think.” Ludwig says India has a rich visual history to draw from along with the technological advances that are happening.
“I get to travel for work. It brings international voices to Cincinnati and starts interesting conversations.” She has now headed back to India, to the India Art Fair (In New Delhi, it is considered the region’s leading stage for contemporary art). “There are a lot of artists whom I met briefly on my first trip; I want to spend more time with them and see what they are doing now. Also, a dear friend of mine has been working on India’s biennial, so I’ve been in conversation with him about young artists in the U.S. that we should be paying attention to, so we’ll continue that conversation.”
Her present show (https://aeqai.org/2011/10/epic-miniatures-contemporary-pakistani-miniaturist-techniques/) is comprised of five artists, living and working abroad, who studied at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. “It’s a part of the world that has been looked at in specific ways by the U.S., and here we see very individual human voices. If you want to take it as a political show, you can. You see individual accounts of political happenings. People experience politics in their everyday living, so you see artists, even when they are not perhaps directly addressing the issues, bring it up in their work, at least at a subconscious level.”
Ludwig had been following the work of these artists for many years. “In my coming here, it seemed a great time to pull these five artists together. These are not actually miniature works in size, but in mentality they are miniature regarding the attention to detail. Historically during the Mughal Empire miniatures were a documentation of those times between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.”
Here Ludwig refers to a program at CAC as it related to the show. Visual Thinking Strategies for children is a system that “allows everyone to bring his or her own interpretation to the experience and gives them a level of ownership. I think that’s unbelievably important. The children bring their upbringing and their understanding of the world to the artist’s understanding of the world, and the moment those two things come together is really special.”
The CAC’s website describes it thus: “VTS uses three precise questions, paraphrasing and non-judgmental affirmations to facilitated discussion in which participants practice problem solving skills. Although this program has been developed as an educational tool for elementary schools and museums it has recently been used by the Harvard Medical School as part of their training and utilized in Cincinnati as a diversity training technique.” The questions, as described in various synopses of VTS are about the pictures, for example: ‘What do you see going on?’; ‘What else do you see?’; and ‘What makes you say that?’.
So, when children were viewing Realms of Intimacy: Miniaturist Practice from Pakistan and in particular “Ambreen Butt’s piece – a collage of tiny pieces of her rejection letters as an artist – Ludwig says, “I just saw it as an artist’s rejection. Then a group of children who were applying to private high schools, said, ‘No, no this is about my experience.’ They then wanted to take all their rejection letters and cut them up and make a beautiful mosaic pattern. They found ways to make everything personal.”
In moving generally to the quality of today’s art and its tendency towards self-focus, Ludwig says, “When a strong artist is doing work that includes self-expression, he or she has to reach beyond that. They have to find a universal statement. Without that I find the work to fail. For instance, I’m a bit old fashioned in the sense that if you’re studying digital photography, you should have experience with dark room photography. I think if you are a purely digital photographer, then you need to have experience with drawing. I think it’s a foolish move for any school to cut out that experience. A lot of people take up photography, because they think it’s easy. It’s so difficult to be a good photographer; you have to understand so much more. I took one photography course, and it was the hardest thing I did, but it completely changed the way I look at the world.”
Having come shortly after college into her present job, Ludwig did not go on to a master’s degree. “I think there is a lot to be said for ‘learning on the job’. I could study Indian art or I could go to India and spend time with contemporary Indian artists. It’s a very different sort of education, but I think it is a valid one. And, here I get to touch the art, put up exhibitions of the work of my heroes. What more can I ask?”
She says eventually she would like to write books. “I love writing; I write a lot. Right now, I haven’t the time.” This is, from all evidence, a colossal understatement. She smiles.
–Cynthia Osborne Hoskin
The Contemporary Arts Center
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