Nick Irvin Curates "Dowsing" in Vienna

Nov. 8, 2023

As part of Vienna's annual "Curated By" festival, Irvin showcases artists who revel in the media's inundation.

A&A graduate student Nick Irvin curated the exhibition Dowsing in Vienna, Austria, at the invitation of the acclaimed Galerie Emanuel Layr as part of a city-sponsored festival called “Curated By.”

The collection of exhibitions takes place annually, with the city’s commercial galleries inviting international curators to organize exhibitions based on a theme. This year, exhibitions were centered on the theme “The Neutral,” riffing on Roland Barthes’s late lecture series by the same name.  

Irvin’s Dowsing, on view from September 12 to October 14, 2023, included 14 artists across generations plus selections from an archive of print ephemera from “fringe groups and conspiracy theorists from the 80s and 90s who mostly communicated their ideas through mailers and other self-published print materials,” said Irvin.

Irvin connects the works he selected to his exhibition and the festival’s over-arching theme in a filmed tour, explaining:

"Overall it gathers different practices that have an intense relationship to our media ecosphere.  We’re so inundated with images all the time, and it’s really hard to make sense of the know so much about what’s going on all over the world all the time, and it’s enough to drive you a little crazy. This show is about people who embrace the threat of the crazy by instead of tuning out of the media, staring deeper into it, and coming to very inventive and idiosyncratic conclusions." – Nick Irvin

Panoramic view of gallery interior with white walls and ceiling showing hanging artwork

Installation view of Dowsing, curated by Nick Irvin, Emanuel Layr, Vienna, 2023

“The exhibition was a thematic, essayistic group show that was interested in countercultures and alternative systems of belief, as well as how print culture and the broader visual culture of these alternative communities fed into artistic practices throughout the twentieth century,” said Irvin.

Blurred, brown-toned sign that reads "If you can keep your head in all this confusion, you just don't understand the situation."

Julie Becker, Federal Building with Music, 2002 (still) DVD, projector screen and wood bench 29:08 min (Courtesy of Greene Naftali, New York)

Irvin titled it “Dowsing” after the pre-modern folk practice of using a forked wooden stick to detect water or rare minerals in the earth— a demonstrably superstitious practice to the modern eye, but a practice that nevertheless persists today.

“For me, this became a useful figure for the overwhelming information glut that consumes most people today (at least in the first world),” he said, “and for the intuitive, sometimes bizarre ways that artists attempt to make sense of that chaos.”

An artwork showing pink and dark blue splotches
Marion Faller & Hollis Frampton, From the Virgin Mary’s family album, from False Impressions, 1979, color xerograph on paper (Courtesy of the Estates of Hollis Frampton and Marion Faller)

Many different practices were represented in the exhibition. At its core was a series of vitrines holding selections from the archive of Donna Kossy, a rare book dealer and former publisher of Kooks, a zine from the 80s-90s which gathered stories of fringe thinkers, ranging from cults to political extremists, to fundamentalist Christian hucksters, to the visionary soapmaker Dr Bronner.

A substantial collage and installation by reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry was contributed by his estate, as was a video by the emerging contemporary artist SoiL Thornton, who had an exhibition at the Vienna Secession concurrently.

Also included were American social realist painters and illustrators Philip Evergood and William Gropper, who were most active in the 1930s and later pursued by the House Unamerican Activities Committee for their associations with the US Communist Party and other leftist organizations.

Oil painting showing many men with bald heads

Philip Evergood, Caucus, 1962, oil on canvas (Courtesy of ACA Galleries, New York)

The exhibition comprised 14 artists, selections from the Kooks archive, and a special screening of underground filmmaker George Kuchar’s film “Secrets of the Shadow World” (1999) at a nearby independent cinema. 

The show received a review in Frieze and was central to the Spike Magazine roundup on “Curated By 2023.”

Artists featured in the exhibition included Julie Becker, Gene Beery, Whitney Claflin, Philip Evergood, Hollis Frampton and Marion Faller, Stano Filko, Matthias Groebel, William Gropper, Jeffrey Joyal, Kooks Archive (Donna Kossy), Lee Scratch Perry, Joe Potts, Ben Sakoguchi, Frances Stark, and SoiL Thornton, plus a screening of George Kuchar’s Secrets of the Shadow World (1999) at Cine Center, Vienna.

A group is gathered around a collage in a white-walled gallery
Irvin presenting the exhibition to a museum group. At left, Lee Scratch Perry, Nativity Painting (Reggae Jam), 2018, and in the background: Whitney Claflin, American Pillows, 2023 (Courtesy Emanuel Layr, Vienna)