People Who Make NY Special

“Learning to Look” at Art With Molly Surno

The installation artist, curator, and WSWD expert decodes the NYC art scene.

Photo by Passerbuys

As an artist and curator, Molly Surno lives at the center of a complicated Venn diagram, where art, film, music, food, and technology meet.

Last fall, the Los Angeles native–turned–Brooklynite curated “Eat/ing Your Heart Out,” an installation of food-related works (from Swiss cheese–shaped wall pieces by Christopher Chiappa to Surno’s own “vagina cakes”) that examined the relationship between eating and desire. She’s dabbled in filmmaking, having turned several years’ worth of photographs into an experimental documentary about the Native American Transgender beauty pageant in Arizona. Just last month, Surno helped bring the immersive audiobook The Minefield Project to Spotify as one of the first video art concepts to ever appear on the major streaming service.

And as one of our What Should We Do?! art experts, she finds and recommends the most fascinating art happenings all around the city. One you shouldn’t miss? The annual Beg, Borrow, or Steal event at the Clinton Hill art space Recess, where you could go home with one of her limited-edition prints. Until then, we’re catching up with Surno to discuss her approach to art, her influences, and her favorite artist-hangout bars.

Molly Surno
Photo by Christopher Ferguson

What Should We Do?!: How did you get started as an artist?
Molly Surno: It wasn’t until I moved to New York City when I was 22 that I realized that being an artist wasn’t just a hobby, but that one could make a living off of making art. New York City is so dynamic in comparison to where I grew up, [L.A.], which is so film-centric. I started out working for a photographer who passed away, but the executor of her estate, Colleen Keegan, became my mentor. Colleen is the cochair of Creative Capital, and she really helped empower me. I earned an M.F.A. at Columbia University, where I was able to converse with people who opened huge gateways into my creative life. That’s where I got into the creation of “happenings,” experiences that incorporate socializing as part of art practice. The idea is to locate things in daily life and ritualize them. For example, in 2008, I did a performance series called Cinema 16 that took place in a former Salvation Army–turned–art studio; it paired contemporary musicians with experimental films.

WSWD: For many people, contemporary art—avant-garde art, especially—can be perplexing and feel inaccessible. How do you suggest the uninitiated approach art?
Surno: So much contemporary art is “for us, by us,” so without context, people can feel shut out. This is where I come in. I create high-caliber art that’s accessible without diluting the work’s integrity. A great way to start is getting yourself to a museum and engaging in an experience that involves all of your senses. Learning to look is a process. First and foremost, it involves patience, which is hard to have in a time-driven environment. Sitting with a painting or video demands slowing down, which can be gratifying. Watching with care and openness truly does open gateways in our minds, which seems particularly valuable in today’s culture. I also suggest approaching art socially—go with groups of friends or book a tour. Turn it into a social experience; that’s when the conversation starts. You’ll have a different relationship to art than if you were by yourself.

WSWD: There’s a huge social component to your work. Why is it important to you, and how does social media play into it?
Surno: My greatest concern is creating physical experiences that connect people to their own bodies and the “communal body.” These ideas are influenced by the traditions of social sculpture, happenings, séances, and rituals, among other gatherings. Social media is an outstanding way to find out what’s going on in the world. I approach it with a spirit of discovery. Anything that an artist reads or sees can be used as fodder for visual inspiration and translated into their work.

WSWD: Who are the artists you admire?
Surno: I’m lucky to be so embedded in a strong artistic community. Some of the people who inspire me the most are the people close to me. My husband, Jay Davis, is a sensational painter and also the curator for Memorial Sloan Kettering’s ambulatory art program, which brings contemporary art to the hospital’s outpatient centers. Jon Kessler, who was one of my professors at Columbia and is head of the New Genre department, helps me think outside the box. Another professor, Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, opened my eyes to unique practices; he often creates Thai meals that are eaten communally in museums. He helped me think about how relational aesthetics and social relations could be part of an art practice. Artists I admire from afar include Ana Mendieta, a Cuban-American performance artist; Ukrainian-American filmmaker Maya DerenDavid Lynch; and the Velvet Underground.

WSWD: What do you love most about NYC?
Surno: That it’s a city driven by spirit and discovery. It’s not about the clean air or pleasant weather or easy living; it’s New York’s passion, community, and ambition that keeps you here. In one single day, I could meet the best yogi, the most brilliant philosopher, and the most creative chef. For example, just in the past few days, I’ve watched a screening with a live score at BAM, went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an educational multimedia performance about Iran, and attended a ceramics class led by a world-famous artist. That’s my life here, really. But I could use more sunshine.

WSWD: If WSWD were to plan a day for you in NYC, what would it include?
Surno: It would include a biking tour through Queens, with stops at the Noguchi Museum (one of my favorites), the best Greek bakeries and restaurants, the Queens Museum (I’ve shamefully never been!), and other NYC treasures that I don’t know about…yet.

Rapid Round!
Molly Surno’s Favorites…in a NY Minute

Neighborhood to gallery-hop?
The Lower East Side. The galleries there are really different from the ones in Chelsea, which are more for the megashows. These are more about emerging artists who are just establishing their New York City careers. Plus, they’re free and accessible.

Yoga studio?
Lighthouse Yoga School. The yogi there can sculpt anyone into an Adonis.

Slice?
New Park Pizza, an old-school place in the Rockaways.

Coffee shop?
Variety Coffee Roasters.

Movie theater?
The Metrograph.

Bars?
Honey’s in Bushwick. It’s artist-run and makes mead and wine from dandelions. Dimes, 169 Bar, and Eastwood are where artists go for cocktails and after-parties.

Nail salon?
PH7. It’s eco-friendly and all natural.

Place to take out-of-town guests?
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Bird Sanctuary. It’s a flat hike along the water.

Bookshop?
The Strand. The rare-books room is incredible.

Day trip?
Lake Minnewaska near New Paltz and Garrison in the Hudson Valley; also Camp Hero State Park in Montauk—it was once an Indian reservation.

Want even more tips and recommendations from New York’s leading experts? Try our mobile app. New York, curated just for you.