One Californian Curator’s Quest to Represent Diversity
Joseph Abbati is an artist and curator who’s committed to representing the diverse artists of his San Francisco base. He currently curates themed exhibitions at the State of California building for the senator in office. His exhibits bring together a diverse group of artists on subjects such as housing, nightlife, artists over 50, the Bay Area Asian diaspora, LGBTQ Pride, the Global Climate Action Summit, and Latinx culture.
But Abbati isn’t limited to the skill of curation. He creates artwork that explores controversial topics like “Artspeak”, LGBTQ fetish postings, and the striking stand-out poses that populate the feeds of Instagram influencers. While his art leans towards a bright pop aesthetic, the topics Abbati explores indicate his wry sense of humor.
So, read on to find out how he became a high-profile curator, what he wants when looking for artists to feature, and his ironic musings on an art world that takes itself just a little too seriously.
Explore Joseph Abbati’s Art Galleries.
If you want to get a sense of how Abbati curates his galleries, you can now experience them virtually on D Emptyspace:
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What were your early years as an artist like? How did you discover that you wanted to be a painter?
I consider myself more of an artist than a painter. At the present, I’ve been using paint as a medium along with digital vectors. And I use photography to produce tapestries and prints on metal. I’m more multi-disciplinary when it comes to materials.
I started painting when I was a teenager. I had an older cousin that was a painter and she saw that I was artistically inclined and began teaching me to paint. That ultimately started my path to becoming an artist.
You both create and curate artworks. How did you get involved in curation (especially at such a high level) and do you prefer one activity over the other?
I enjoy both artwork and curating. It all started thanks to an atmosphere of collaboration. Someone at our local Senator’s office saw my work at an exhibition and invited me to put on a display of my art in their building. They liked the work I brought to the office and I suggested curating another exhibit for them with San Francisco Bay Area artists.
The State of California Building has about 10,000 square feet and large open walls, perfect for displaying work. It was a great way for the Senator to reach out to his constituency while filling the offices with Bay Area art. We’ve continued this partnership for over two years with two new exhibits each year.
Artwork is my personal discipline. Curation keeps me in touch with the local art scene and developing new relationships within it.
Tell us a little bit more about your curation work in the senator’s office. Do you find it challenging? How do you balance diversity? And have you ever had pushback on a piece you thought was perfect?
There is always a challenge when organizing an exhibit. When I put out a call for submissions I want to reach as many people as possible so I can gather the most diverse segments in our community.
A visitor to one of our exhibits asked me why there were no female Latin artists in the exhibit. I had put out the call mistakenly thinking I reached out to enough of the community. But sometimes a particular segment doesn’t respond. So I needed to change the way I reached out. Now I target specific groups within the community. And in October I am curating a Latinx-based exhibit.
I’ve been fortunate to work for a Senator that does not pushback or override my choices. When we had artwork that was nude or sexual in nature I grouped them together strategically in a separate room but there was never a question about whether or not we’d hang the artwork. He and his staff have been very supportive of my efforts to represent the diverse community of artists we have in the San Francisco Bay area.
Among other things, your “Artspeak” Series reveals how difficult it is to describe the visual language of art with a written one. Where did your inspiration for this series come from? And have any brave art critics attempted to describe this series?
“Artspeak” comes from a collection of sentences I’ve been saving while reading art reviews, press releases and artist bios. I noticed there was a language used that seemed very obtuse at times. I found these tropes very amusing and saved them, not quite knowing what I would do with them at first.
Then I thought many of these sentences could be applied to almost any artwork so I started to create paintings that served as backdrops to them. I haven’t shown the entire series yet in an exhibit. I just started this series earlier this year and now have one in a group exhibit titled “Language and Letters.”
I noticed when people viewed the painting they seemed to miss the humor I was trying express until I explained the premise. When artwork references a question asking “Is it still possible to forge social autonomy from capitalist dominance in the psycho-economic framework of semiocapitalism?,” it can be intimidating.
By moving these descriptions into another context by questioning what is being said in the art world, it shows us how difficult it is to actually have words to describe a visual language. It’s also amusing to read with an absurdist point of view.
Can you talk us through your recent Linemen series? I’m curious, do you choose famous “influencers” as your models? Or rather unknown men without social media presence?
Some of the influencers I have used for the “Linemen” series are famous amongst the Instagram community. Others are models or “wannabe” influencers.
Their body language is what I found interesting … the way they pose and the attitude they exude.
I started doing these loopy lined figures by drawing them on my iPhone in Sketch for a study. Once I saw what they could represent I then started working on them in Illustrator where my vector drawings could be scaled to my work. The figures are about contour. Without seeing specific facial features or clothing we are already programmed to understand what they mean.
You’re involved in the LGBTQ art scene in San Fransico. How has the artist community grown and changed over the years in your eyes?
Living in San Francisco is difficult for many artists. The LGBTQ community is still very strong here but artists within that community are finding it increasingly difficult to find housing and studios.
When I first moved here it was a relatively inexpensive city to live in. That brought a lot of creative types to the city for decades because it was cheap and had a very open attitude towards different lifestyles. Now that the city is a tech dominated with a lot of money coming into it, artists are being priced out of living here. That’s been the biggest change I’ve seen in the last decade.
As a curator, I imagine you have lots of artists approaching you to display their work. Do you have any do’s and don’ts for artists trying to get curated?
When I put out a call for submissions, I ask for artists to submit up to three pieces. What I prefer to see from artists is a cohesive grouping because I like to give each artist their own section of wall space.
When I get submissions that do not relate well to one another either in technique, subject, or point of view it’s difficult for me to understand what the artist is trying to say. I like to hang pieces that are immediately recognizable for that individual artist. Those work the best for what I am curating.
How do you choose the topics for your curated galleries? Is it based on your own interest or do you have a process?
We theme our exhibitions to speak sometimes to the congressional work the Senator is doing, and sometimes to subjects I’m interested in exploring. Our first exhibit was on “housing.” The Senator was working on a bill to make housing more accessible because — as I mentioned above — it’s a big issue in the Bay Area… especially for artists. I put out a call for submissions to artists here to see what they were thinking about when it came to the subject.
Since then, we have also done exhibits exploring “Nite Life”, “Queerky” and “QueerEyes” for LGBTQ artists, “eARTh” for the Global Climate Action Summit, “Advanced” for artists over 50 years, “East on West” for artists of the Asian diaspora, and “We Belong- Pertenecemos” for Latinx based artists opening in October.
Do you have any career plans for the future in art or curation? What’s next?
I have submitted a proposal for a new body of work exploring queer bodies for 2020. This work uses the 50,000+ photographs I collected on Tumblr for a site I curated for eight years. The site has since been taken down when they stopped allowing “adult material” on their platform. By using some of these photographs as my subject material, I can now show them online because they are Illustrations or paintings.
It seems odd to me that a painting of the same subject is acceptable but a photograph is not. They speak about the same thing but our social norms have determined how we can look at it. As for curating, I am beginning to work with other venues in 2020, but with planning three to four exhibits a year and working on my own artwork, I have enough on my plate at the moment
We love what you’ve been doing with D Emptyspace. What’s your process been like using it to curate virtually?
When I downloaded the D Emptyspace app I saw it as a way to do some curating online. I have photographed the spaces I use for my exhibits and Photoshop the artwork into them to help me plan for my curation. I see a great opportunity for D Emptyspace to allow curators to customize the wall spaces they use on the app to help with planning and to also make their exhibits mobile. I also see it as a good opportunity for myself as an artist to visualize my work hanging since I have limited wall space. It would also help me create mobile exhibits I could share for proposals and promotion.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions where we can see your work in person?
I’ll be working with Art Attack SF to bring a queer based art program to their gallery for the Pride festivities in June 2020. The gallery is located in the Castro district, the “gayborhood” of San Francisco. We’ll be kicking off the month with an exhibit of queer artists and be programing different activities throughout the month to help celebrate. It’s a way to engage the LGBTQ community with the art scene. It’s open to everybody, so come down and show your support!
I just received an invitation to do a one-man exhibit in 2020. The date has not been set yet but it will run for a month some time in the spring. I’ll be posting more information on my Instagram account.
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