By Chloe Hyman
On March 5, SPRING/BREAK Art Show descended upon 866 United Nations Plaza, where it will remain in all its tangible, technicolor glory until Monday, March 11. Held annually during Armory Week in New York City, the show challenges the exclusivity of the art fair, providing no-cost exhibition space to emerging and established artists and curators. Its transformation of corporate and government space— this time at the United Nations, the dictionary definition of ‘government space’— is a sharp commentary on the underlying societal institutions that support an exclusionary art world.
Experimental art and curatorial practices always abound at SPRING/BREAK, but one particular exhibit caught my eye this year— the divinely opulent “Spiritual Art Advisory,” curated by Sarah Potter and Caroline Larsen. The 22 featured artists in this exhibition have all contributed a work inspired by the Tarot’s Major Arcana, and their responses vary in medium and tone. Equally present in the space are the curators, Potter and Larsen, whose roles are not so easy to define. They are both exhibition conceptualizers and spiritual guides, inviting the viewer to engage spiritually with the works and to question Tarot’s magical potential. I spoke to them about their unique curatorial approach. Below are excerpts from our conversation:
Chloe Hyman: Sarah, tell me about your journey into magic(k) and your experience in the art world. What is your background as a curator?
Sarah Potter: Since I was a child, art and magic(k) have always been a part of my life. I have tried to run away from it but it always pulls me back in… I honestly cannot even imagine my life without these two important elements in it every day! I have a background in gallery work and event planning, so as the art world has evolved I have enjoyed evolving my business with it. I love curating experiences for visitors, connecting collectors to artwork that thrills them, and creating ephemeral experiences that last a moment but stay with a visitor forever.
CH: And Caroline, What is your background in the art world and your connection to Tarot?
Caroline Larsen: I am a painter and I also love to curate exhibitions! I am attracted to Tarot because of the beauty of the decks. Each deck that I looked at [while] doing research for the show was so beautiful that I wanted to make my own card and invite artists whose work I love and admire to make their own as well.
CH: How did you select the artists for this exhibition?
CL: Sarah and I worked on the list together. Some of the exhibiting artists have a tarot practice and others do not, but their work lends itself to the theme. It was really interesting to see how abstract artists interpreted the cards.
CH: How do you see the individual works as existing in dialogue with one another?
CL: Each artist picked a piece of work from the Major Arcana so we hung the exhibition based off of the order of the cards in the deck. All the work in the exhibition is so strong and so different that each work can stand on its own, but they work so lovely as a set too!
SP: Every artist really brought it, and I am so incredibly proud of how it all came together. Group shows can sometimes be chaotic or challenging, but this feels really harmonious and balanced.
CH: And are the artists all femme-identifying?
SP: There is a diverse mix of artist perspectives here. We didn’t set out to do an all-women show, we just wanted to show the highest quality work for our curation. I do not believe in curating all-women shows, [as] it feels a bit reductive, but I am drawn to a woman’s perspective and it’s important to me to provide a platform for women, now more than ever. I am not going to exclude men from my curatorial conversation in order to heighten the work of women artists. I honestly do not see how that is helping anyone. I just want to show the best quality of work!
CH: I realize my assumption that your exhibition centered femme artists comes from the fact that I only know womxn who practice magic(k). Why do you think womxn are so drawn to magic(k)?
SP: Witchcraft is intuitively guided, and I think women naturally tap into that energy more easily because of our societal constructs.
SP: Lala Abaddon really flipped the script on gender with her portrayal of the emperor, the card that embodies masculine energy. She chose to depict her emperor through a nude self-portrait! It’s a very powerful piece.
CH: I love the way Abbadon’s Emperor is hung between Langdon Grave’s Empress and the wall. What might originally have been a feminine/masculine dichotomy is muddied, the latter taking ‘masculine’ blue as its central hue but centering the female form. What emerges from that new relationship feels really pure, like the essence of each card has been removed from the gendered hands of history.
The relationship between these two works points to the exhibition’s strong curatorial presence. In many shows, the curation is felt rather than seen. The casual viewer may pass through and focus exclusively on the artwork itself, not considering the impact of space on the exhibition as a whole. But you are using the work of these artists to engage with visitors regarding their own spiritual needs. Your voices as ‘curator-healers’ are very noticeable in this relationship. Would you agree with this interpretation?
SP: I do agree! Thank you, you nailed it. I feel like the curator is almost the narrator of the story, curating the space and directing the flow of energy in the room through the selection and arrangement of the work. Each piece should enhance the overall story and add to the visual dialogue with a strong point of view.
CH: Is visitor participation often a key element of your curatorial practices?
SP: Being an artist can be very solitary, [with] long days in the studio laboring alone. The work needs other eyes on it—it needs to be displayed and experienced by others. Once viewers can experience the work, the circle is completed and the work and its intentions is fully realized.
CH: Participatory art is definitely a strong theme here. What do you like about SPRING/BREAK? Have you ever exhibited or curated an exhibition here before?
CL: SPRING/BREAK is a pretty dynamic fair! It’s always moving to new locations and you never know what you’re going to get. I have shown work there as an artist twice, once at the post office location and once at Times Square. I have curated twice, once at Times Square and now at the UN Office.
SP: I love SPRING/BREAK! This is my third time curating an exhibition for this fair and it keeps getting better and better each year. I love that the [emphasis] is placed on curatorial concepts and radical vision. You feel it throughout the entire space. Ambre and Andrew have done an incredible job fostering such a creative environment—that authenticity is felt. My clients always tell me it is their favorite fair to collect work from and visit every year. Of course, that makes me happy to hear, too.
CH: What do you hope viewers will take away from the exhibition emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually?
SP: I hope viewers enjoy contemplating the imagery and symbolism of each card’s archetype and the way the artists interpreted each card. Playing with the fair’s curatorial theme of “Fact and Fiction,” I hope that viewers question the role of the Tarot and consider whether it has the divinatory ability to transcend realms and offer a magical peek into their own future.
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Inspired by my conversation with Potter and Larsen, I decided to embark on my own spiritual journey within the exhibit. I chose four works that really spoke to me as if I’d drawn them from the deck myself. Then I spoke to each artist and allowed their words to inform my…potential destiny.
I started with Kate Klingbeil’s interpretation of Justice, which utilizes black sand, acrylic, watercolor, and vinyl to depict a winged Justice presiding over the people. Her body language is contradictory; while her left-hand rests gently on her breast, her right clenches an anthropomorphic sword. Tiny naked human figures dangle from the scales of justice, falling to the murky violet depths below. All the while she looks on peacefully, her eyes downcast, a small smile on her lips. Her serenity is opposed by an ominous eye, the whites of which are tinged a sickly pink, that ensnares the viewer’s gaze.
“I chose the justice card because it offered me a chance to meditate on balance and truth,” Klingbeil says. The artist based her depiction off the imagery in the Serravalle-Sesia Tarot—a late 19th-century Italian deck—but the swarm of tiny people climbing Justice are her own addition. They heighten the significance of the deity’s serene expression. “She remains unphased,” Klingbeil explains. Because she remains calm despite the tumultuous scene below her, “we have to believe that truth will prevail.”
Next I pulled the Star, interpreted by Margot Bird with acrylic paint, epoxy putty, and gold leaf. I was drawn to its kitsch factor, the way aliens, poodles, and pastel hues could someway come together to create something that registers as divine. I fully believed in the existence of these poodle-human hybrid creatures, and I acknowledged that they danced beside the sun, pouring stars to the whirlpool below. Perhaps the sheer abundance of pastel hues created a strange cohesion that rendered itself supernaturally Other.
Or maybe Bird has translated the essence of the truly divine Star into something comprehensible for the human mind. “I feel like [The Star] represents bursts of creativity, inspiration, and optimism,” says Bird. She emphasized anything that passed through her mind that felt new and untouched, like “those feelings of sudden inspiration and positivity.” The inclusion of aliens speaks to her strong desire to share, and so these creatures receive cups of star water, receiving the creativity and happiness she feels inside.
Third I chose Strength, depicted with grace by Hiba Schahbaz. In this mixed-media work, crafted with gouache, watercolor, gold leaf, and tea, a woman sits nose-to-nose with a lion, naked as he. The serenity of both creatures feels a bit ambiguous. Perhaps the woman shows strength to sit so calmly with a predatory carnivore. Or maybe the harmony of the two beings engenders a different kind of strength, a power not measured through action or brute force, but through connection and understanding and taking the time to find peace and resolve differences.
“I love the harmony between the lion and the lady,” says Schahbaz. “It gives me a feeling of being connected to my best self. There is no fear, just perfection.” The artist’s words suggest the lion as a kind of self-portrait, a reflection of the inner self as a powerful lion, strong yet never impulsive. “A sense of protection, perseverance, grace, and love,” she adds.
Lastly, I come to Temperance, sculpted by Jen Dwyer, whose ceramic contribution to the deck exhibits similar dichotomies of darkness and lightness. Her ornamented black vases are humanoid, black hands emerging from the clay to tighten around their necks. Or are they resting gently in a soft embrace? The presence of rope winding its way around the bodies of the vases suggests the former, but there is something very meditative about them nonetheless that suggests peace.
“The temperance card is all about balance, which I interpreted as a form of self-care,” Dwyer explains. “I’ve been thinking about the Audre Lorde quote, ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’” The artist’s words reinforce the presence of both tension and peace in her work. What strikes me is the agency the hand represents in deciding whether it will be used for self-harm or self-care. “I’m definitely pointing the finger at myself,” she says. “I could get a lot better at taking some space from the studio.”
SPRING/BREAK is open through Monday, March 11th. Stop by E25 to ponder your own future. Sarah Potter and Caroline Larsen will be close by if you need a spiritual guide.