Julie Rodrigues Widholm: A Conversation with the Midwest Competition Juror

Julie Rodrigues Widholm knows her stuff. The Pamela Alper Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary, Chicago (MCA), Widholm has had extensive experience working with emerging contemporary artists, including organizing nearly 30 of the MCA's 12 x 12 shows, an exhibition series of emerging Chicago-based talent. And in 2009, she was the curator of Constellations: Paintings from the MCA Collection, which examined the course of painting over the last 60 years.

We've tapped Widholm to jury the 2011 Midwestern Competition, for which artists can apply online now through February 28!

I caught up with Widholm at the MCA to talk about her experience with painting, how young artists are experimenting with the medium, and her excitement for reviewing the Midwest submissions.

EJG: Tell me about your experience and some of the projects you've worked on.

JRW: I have been at the MCA since 1999… In terms of painting, I did a fairly large exhibition called Constellations: Paintings from the MCA Collection, looking at eight or nine different ways that artists have approached painting in the last 60 years. That was probably the first time I really sat down and started thinking about painting, in particular as a medium, and what it means to paint today.

I did a short documentary video with some local artists and asked them the questions, 'Why do you paint? What is it about painting in 2009/2010 that continues to be so exciting and interesting for artists?' And I was surprised because I learned quite a bit about why this medium persists and how different artists approach it… I realized [painting now] is much more personal, much more about time, about process, the materials, the use of those materials, and the exploration through those materials. That was really revelatory for me.

So, what’s your answer to that question? What is it about painting in 2010, or 2011, that’s exciting?

I think it’s so much about very idiosyncratic and personal approaches to process. I think a lot of painting now is process and not so much the image. And, of course, there will always be representational painting, but what I’m seeing is a kind of renewal in the younger generation who are approaching abstraction in a new and exciting way that’s very open-ended… On one hand, [those practices] have become very formal. I think formalism is back in a new way.

Oh, I totally agree. Chicago is a pretty exciting place when it comes to emerging work, not only because of the schools there, but because of institutions like the MCA and the Art Institute Chicago.

Yeah! Absolutely. I think if we’re considering the Midwest as not New York and not LA, if we include the Walker, cities like St Louis and Indianapolis both have some pretty exciting things happening, there are really wonderful, ambitious things happening in the middle part of the U.S…. I went to Kansas City a couple of years ago to do some studio visits, and I was amazed at what was happening there.

I agree with what you said about Chicago being great for emerging artists because of the schools that we have here, and because of the galleries we have. [Emerging artists] are really doing it themselves. They're testing the waters and putting on exhibitions and really making it happen… It’s a very supportive environment here. There isn’t much cut-throat competition here—there’s enough room for everybody to do what they need to do.

What are you looking forward to the most when going through these submissions?

Discovering the next big artist, right? I’m hoping that I might find some artists that could be completely new to me but living in Chicago right under my nose. I could get out and do studio visits and meet them and see if they would make sense for the 12 x 12 series at the MCA or other projects. Ultimately, it’s a very efficient way for me to see so much work at once and see what’s happening outside of Chicago. I haven’t had the opportunity to do many studio visits elsewhere in the Midwest, so this is a way to see what’s happening the places I can’t visit. I’m very excited.

The Midwest Competition of New American Paintings is now open online. Artists may apply through February 28, 2011. Julie Rodrigues Widholm, the Pamela Alper Associate Curator at MCA Chicago, is the curator of Seeing Is a Kind of Thinking: A Jim Nutt Companion, which opens January 28 at the MCA in conjunction with the exhibition Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character.

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