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Curating and Creating: Aaron Ziolkowski Addresses Art History in Zoller Gallery Exhibition

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Aaron Ziolkowski

“Canon Fodder,” a School of Visual Arts exhibition curated by Aaron Ziolkowski, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History, grapples with the canon of art history and its impact on contemporary art and artists.

The exhibition, which opened on Monday, January 30, in Zoller Gallery and runs through Monday, February 6, features works by Ziolkowski, SoVA students, and alumni. Some participants created work specifically for the show, prompted by Ziolkowski to think of a meaningful work of art and make a piece of art in response to it.

“The exhibition title addresses how we can use the canon for material to create new art and makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to cannon fodder,” explains Ziolkowksi. “Some artists choose to be well informed about art history and others are not interested because it might foreclose their thinking. Some don’t agree with which artists are considered canonical. Others just want to do something different.”

“Canon Fodder” is Ziolkowski’s third curated show in the Zoller Gallery, although he has worked on many others since coming to Penn State for his master’s degree in art history in 2011. His other Zoller exhibitions include Farima Fooladi’s M.F.A. exhibition in fall 2016 and “Odd Couples,” a spring 2016 show pairing SoVA M.F.A. students and Art Education graduate students in the process of making corresponding work based upon artists’ descriptions. This is the first exhibition in which Ziolkowski displays a suite of his own work.

“My work is obsessed with art history,” he admits. “I’m trying to show that too much knowledge of art history is stifling—like I am producing a collage of the past instead of something new. I want to foreground the exhibition with that work and move into the group work to present a wider spectrum and nuanced way of dealing with art history.”  

Before attending Penn State, Ziolkowski earned his bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in art history at UCLA and worked for a period as a gallery guard and museum guide at the Long Beach Museum of Art, and as a guard and intern for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where he wrote a blog post about the amount of time security guards spend around art compared to curators and guards’ insights about the art. 

A native of Long Beach and an only child, Ziolkowski credits his parents, who both have backgrounds in the arts, for his initial interest in art. At Penn State, he attends as many arts-related events as possible, including plays and music concerts, explaining that he is making up for what he missed while an undergrad.

“I didn’t take full advantage of the opportunities I had as an undergraduate. After working for three years and going back to school, I realize how privileged I am to be doing something I like,” Ziolkowski continued. “It could be easy to reduce Penn State to football, but there are all kinds of opportunities for students, and Penn State is very good about supporting that range of interests.”

Ziolkowski is currently working on his dissertation on the origins of large-scale, abstract paintings as lobby art in semi-public, architectural spaces in mid-’50s to early ’60s in New York and other major metro areas. His advisor, Sarah K. Rich, associate professor of art history, has helped him think about art from different perspectives.

“She has the most flexible thinking process,” said Ziolkowski. “I’ve never seen someone so good at all the different parts of being a professor—teaching, writing, and advising. She is also involved with visual artists in class and in critiques, which I admire.”

Ziolkowski’s admiration extends to other members of the department, including Evan Pugh Professor Anthony Cutler, for whom he serves as a research assistant.

“It has been rewarding to see his research,” said Ziolkowksi about Cutler. “It is helpful to witness the whole scholarly process first-hand from the way that Dr. Cutler collects and organizes his information to the writing and submitting of articles.”

Ziolkowksi advises students to make connections with other students they admire. “Find and make opportunities to work with people you like. Most of the shows I have worked on happened because I liked and respected the artists as people first. The connections between SoVA and Art History are important, and I hope that people continue to build relationships between the two.”

The closing reception for “Canon Fodder” is Monday, February 6, 5–7 p.m. For more information about “Canon Fodder,” visit the SoVA website: