Views of “Selections from the Life and Work of Michael Bravo,” CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, 2010. (Photos: Navid Baraty)


Since the mid-1990s, Harrell Fletcher has worked collaboratively and individually on socially engaged, participatory works. He is currently the director of Art and Social Practice at Portland State University in Oregon. Here he discusses “Selections from the Life and Work of Michael Bravo,” an exhibition on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco until April 24.

I’VE THOUGHT ABOUT CURATING this show for the past five years. Michael Bravo retired from the art department at Humboldt State University––where I studied with him as an undergraduate––in 2004, after thirty-one years of teaching. Coincidentally, that year I began to teach at Portland State University. He was married to my older sister when I was a child, which adds an unusual element to our relationship. I’ve always been inspired by his work, as it is very interdisciplinary and unorthodox. But I’ve also been interested in him as a person and feel that our trajectories have been similar in several important ways.

The show features some objects he made for me when I was a baby, such as a mobile that used to hang over my crib, a toolbox, and wooden ships. I’ve also included a selection of Michael’s art from the past fifty years, as well as ephemera, like family photographs and documents from his life. I interviewed him for a publication that accompanies the show and wrote an exhibition text that describes our relationship and thoughts about his work. The exhibition presents my very particular view of Michael. It’s a very idiosyncratic exhibition, and many people have told me they think it’s the most personal show I’ve done.

I think this exhibition is related to several projects I’ve organized in the past that look at artists who operate on the margins of the art world or who are not involved in the art world at all. I’ve always been drawn to people and places that are peripheral to art-world centers. These are concerns that are central to my practice.

The exhibition is also similar in some ways to my traveling exhibition “The American War,” which began in 2005. In that case, I rephotographed all of the images and texts from the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and organized events and talks to accompany the show. I think the connection between that project and the current one at the Wattis is that in both cases I create a framework in which to view a set of objects that I didn’t make myself. As a viewer you can look at the work directly or you can consider it from the larger perspective of my relationship to the materials and my motivations for organizing the show.

Michael’s exhibition is part of the Wattis Institute’s program “The Magnificent Seven,” which is spread out over a three-year period. In addition to having a solo show, each participating artist will teach at CCA for a semester and will create a new work as part of a Capp Street Project Residency. (The other artists are Abraham Cruzvillegas, Ryan Gander, Renata Lucas, Kris Martin, Paulina Olowska, and Tino Sehgal.)

Right now I have another project that I’m working on with Wattis director Jens Hoffmann called “The People’s Biennial.” For that traveling exhibition, which is being organized by Independent Curators International, Jens and I will travel to five locations across the US––Portland, Oregon; Rapid City, South Dakota; Scottsdale, Arizona; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Haverford, Pennsylvania. We will choose local people’s work in each of the cities to be a part of a group exhibition that travels to art centers in each of the cities that we selected work from. The art itself could be anything from a kid’s science experiment to the work of an artist who for one reason or another hasn’t participated in the art world. We’ll also have roundtable discussions about art and curating in those cities where the exhibitions are held. The show was partially inspired by the artist Michael Patterson-Carver (not to be confused with Michael Bravo), whose career I helped launch. When I first met him he was selling his drawings on a sidewalk in Portland, Oregon, and now he has had shows in galleries and museums in New York, Paris, London, and Brussels. Not that I think there is anything wrong with showing your work on the street, but it is also nice to be able to break down the walls that normally prevent artists like Patterson-Carver from showing in mainstream art venues.

I want to level things out by drawing attention to work being made outside of standard art world circles. I’m not interested in hierarchies or creating distinctions between different kinds of people and the work they make based on where they live or whether or not they have a MFA. I think this kind of expanded view of what qualifies as “art” and who can be called an artist, ultimately makes for a more interesting art world and world in general.

The People’s Biennial” opens September 10 at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Oregon.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler