Ariella Wolens is New York’s Next Art Star

As she opens a heavy hitting group show at Paul Kasmin Gallery, get to know the bright, young curator bringing together John Baldessari and Phoebe Collings-James.

By Emily Manning, 6/26/15

When we hung out with Ariella Wolens and the Downtown Girls Basketball League last fall, she was rocking a Junya Watanabe dress and New York Knicks bucket hat combo while discussing which 90s R&B tracks would be spun on the League's Know Wave radio show later that evening. This week, we kicked it a little further uptown at Paul Kasmin Gallery— home to the 25-year-old curator's latest group show, The Written Trace— but Ariella doesn't seem phased. She's paired a pale pink micromesh situation with Doc Martens saddle shoes, and poses for a photo atop of one of the show's more colorful pieces: textbooks shoved in a fake pile of shit. But she's not all lols: the bright young art star has amassed an amazing roster for the Kasmin spotlight on textual art. She's got masters like Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and prolific cartoonist R. Crumb, but also gives shine to her peers including Phoebe Collings-James and Zachary Susskind. As The Written Trace opens to the public, we caught up with Ariella to get her take on making it in the art world.

Tell us about yourself. How did you get to be doing what you're doing now?

I was born in London to American parents, and most of my family's interests are completely unrelated to the arts. I started doing art history and wrote my UCL undergrad dissertation on Ed Ruscha, exploring the way he puts two very unrelated phrases together and creates absurd situations. I interviewed him for the thesis, and for i-D's i-Con feature. But as I was doing my undergrad dissertation, I was seeing all of these young artists who were coming out of the Slade School of Fine Art and didn't really have any space, support or context to show their work. So I set up a non-profit organization called New End and started trying to fundraise and stage exhibitions. I did a show last January at OHWOW Gallery that spotlighted young British artists, and later went to Columbia for my Masters in Curating and Criticism in Modern Art. I'd also been corresponding with R Crumb because I was trying to interview him. I wanted to use my interest in his comics, as well as my interest in Ed's artworks as a foundation. I realized that even though they're very different, they're two of the strongest textual artists, so that became a catalyst for this show.

You've compiled such a wide range of artists, even spanning back to early Christian documents. Can you speak about the evolution of textual art?

The conceptual aspect of this exhibition stems from semiotic theorist Jacques Derrida, who emphasized the importance of writing in the development of language. I think that really starts with the creation of symbols; even before hieroglyphics, handprints in caves were visual records that indicated presence. Even though many artists reference these formative texts — one of the artists in the show, Brian O'Doherty, has a series called Ohm Drawings that's based on an ancient Celtic language — I feel a lot of the artists in this exhibition are responding to pivotal modernist and post-modernist artists. Phoebe [Collings-James'] work is written on a booklet for an exhibition of Cy Twombly's at the Tate. His writing, the honesty of it, is something that she considers within her own work and utilizes that process in what she presents.

We're bombarded with images on various social media platforms and emoji is apparently the fastest growing language in the UK. Do you feel this shift is impacting how we see art or communicate with each other?

You never really know if the thing that's going on in your head is the same as the thing that's going on in someone else's head. That's something that I wanted to consider in this exhibition, the subjectivity of our brains. There's something about emotions that you can't ever really penetrate with words. But separate from language, we do read images as a different form of signification. Partly because of social media and digital communication, our mental cognition is definitely so much more rapid today. We're so inundated that it's hard to know if we're really taking the time to consider the implications of what we're receiving, how these images are affecting us. I think the popularity of emojis signals that maybe the development of language is moving away from words.

What advice would you give young people looking to break into the art world?

Nobody's gonna do you a favor! If you want to do something, just go out and make it happen. Even if you don't have an audience or money, look for charities or nonprofits that can help bring your ideas to life. Always listen and get any advice you can. If there are people who are at where you want to be, don't be afraid to reach out to them — it's worth it. It's also really important to support each other; one of the most rewarding things for me has just been listening to artists my age, learning more about their perspectives, and working with them. And don't be afraid to fail. Failure is probably the most valuable lesson, and I think we have to honor that. There's a lot of importance attached to just making the effort and seeing where it takes you.