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Take Five: Curator Gedi Sibony on the domestic pause of the Pulitzer's 'In the Still Epiphany'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 3, 2012 - Did you ever pause to ponder on a kitchen stool just after mopping the floor, and, while staring into space, realize you should have gone to law school?

The details may have been different in ancient times or even the early 20th century but such domestic moments transcend time. In curatingthe Pulitzer Foundation’s “In the Still Epiphany,” artist and curator Gedi Sibony found many such musings in works ranging from 5000 B.C. through 1966.

Discarded items of domesticity such as doors, vertical blinds, plywood and Plexiglass often find their way into Sibony's own work. Having exhibited from Tel Aviv to Toronto as well as at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, Sibony is known for making important yet minimalist statements using everyday household objects: one sculpture consists only of the underside of a carpet piece.

But in curating “In the Still Epiphany,” opening Thursday, April 5, Sibony dealt with a wide variety of intricate artwork.

“Epiphany” is a mise-en-scène, or grouped, exhibition of 50 pieces from the collection of Emily and Joseph Pulitzer, including works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, August Rodin and Edouard Vuillard.

Vuillard’s “Woman in Green,” depicting a woman reclining and daydreaming, is but one inspiration for the exhibition’s name, according to Sibony, who talked with the Beacon about “Epiphany” and how it came to be.

How exactly did the figures who appear inside homes inspire the name, “In the Still Epiphany"?

Sibony: It's about something that happens in the ritual of the domestic, in the repeated daily activities of cleaning, tidying, making food and cleaning up, and then you sit for a second and have a revelation about the universe. This isn’t a transcendental experience that happens at Yellowstone or something.

These artists are depicting that through not just the face but also the posture, the head tilt and the hands. It’s the same thing the artist was trying to achieve in the Renaissance with the “Annunciation” painting.

The exhibition includes African, Asian and Pre-Columbian objects along with modern and contemporary European and American paintings. What were the challenges in working with so many diverse pieces with such a long timeline?

Sibony: I don’t know if I feel like there were challenges; I think it all happened rather naturally and instantaneously. When I was looking through the collection, the pieces I wanted to show were immediately obvious. Putting it together has felt incredibly intuitive and natural, not challenging in that sense.

Would you talk about one of your favorite groupings?

Sibony: There are lots of delightful moments. But in particular, there is the Fontana painting [“Black Landscape”] that I found in the collection and what it proposes as kind of depiction of the internet, according to Fontana, and then placing two ancient figurines in front of it.

Besides being a very dramatic encounter, it raises questions: Are those objects different than Fontana’s? Was art one thing then and another thing now? I think how we praise the mystery of life in both cases seems very similar.

You live in New York. How have you been working on this St. Louis project?

Sibony: I’ve been working on the show for about a year now. First, I was given books of the collection. Then I came to St. Louis — it wasn’t my first time; it was my fourth or fifth time — and looked at everything and spent time in the space, which I have five or six times before. That’s what I do for a living when I go into a space, I understand it.

And then I went back and said, “Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, what's going on here? Why do I love all this stuff, what am I thinking about, what's going on?” It became clear that Picasso’s “The Fireplace” is the best Picasso painting I’ve seen in person. It’s something I’ve never seen before in a Picasso show, maybe because there are so many of them, or maybe it’s something in the context of the painting itself.

So then I went home and came back again a couple of months later and looked at everything a few more times and went home again. And I came back for the third time, and I’ll be here through the opening.

Could you describe the experience of curating a collection that is not of your own work?

Sibony: Part of my practice is collecting objects and having shows and taking the best of what I have and displaying them in a meaningful way. In this case, the stuff that was available to me was exceptional.

So in that sense, what I’m doing doesn’t feel different than what I usually do, but it’s just that I’m off the hook because I don’t have to come up with the objects themselves; I get to just pick them from a limited group — so that part is great.

The fact that there is Vuillard and a Picasso helps because there is a tremendous amount of energy that comes from being next to those things and putting them up — you can’t really lose. It’s like a downhill ride the whole way.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.