Just as divisions in artistic mediums and practices are blurring, so too are the distinctions between artists and designers. The farther we move away from the entrenchments of Modernism, the more this trend is likely to continue. This month, I spoke with three designers of diverse backgrounds working in and around Detroit as a place of inspiration, community and revival. From the elegant reworkings of Modernist forms emphasizing beauty in the handmade of Brian DuBois, to the decidedly analog textural surfaces adorning Chris Schanck’s startling furniture, to the unexpected combination of industrial and natural materials to create incredibly organic and mesmerizing surfaces in the work of Jack Craig, designing on a small scale provides opportunities for spontaneity, chance, and individuality. During our recent conversation, we discussed how small production can return design to richer, more powerful connections with the user.
From left: Brian DuBois, Jack Craig and Chris Schanck in Brian’s shop, Hazel Park, MI
We become disconnected to design through all the filters a product goes through, all the separate hands and intentions that shape the product. Not only does this remove the designer from their work, but it is somewhat antithetical to what design sets out to do: empowering our tangible and lived experience in the world. As the three of you largely manufacture your own designs, how does this inform your work, as well as the conversation around contemporary design?
Brian: The beauty of having a shop space and making your own work is that you’re able to make decisions right there. You understand the materials and the fabrication, unlike if you were in a traditional firm where all you’re doing are pretty renderings all day. Anyone can draw the fancy picture; but its not until you get your hands dirty that you say “oh man, I can’t bend steel this way. I have to go to aluminum.” And that changes up the whole game for your idea.
Chris: There’s a difference in the way Brian works and the way you describe off the shelf mass produced industrial design, and it’s that there’s an unknown or distrust in the perfection of product design. They have no visual history. The way Brian works, there is room for imperfection. If you look at his “Detroit on a Platter”: he walked through the streets of Detroit measuring, taking photographs, doing his citywide site analysis with eyes on the street, rather than fly by on Google Maps. So I trust in that process, although it may be full of errors. There is an authenticity there that you don’t find in an off the shelf product.
B: When people know that you did it by hand, then there is the aura of the artist. When you look at Jack and Schanck’s work, they can’t be mass produced. We’re not at that market of selling through Herman Miller or Knoll.
Jack: I have worked a little in industry. I would agree – the pure intentions of positively engaging the “lived experience” is undeniably diluted by the demands of market and the economics of production. And yes, to some degree, operating outside of industry allows you to preserve a more human agenda. It still has its limitations. I wouldn’t say one is better – they are just different. Our lifestyles are completely dependent on the innovations of industry. Sure there is an over-saturation of product – mostly misplaced propositions for happiness. It is capitalistic and flawed. But to an extent it is also largely self-policing and fundamentally optimistic. Good design has a way of surviving. The bigger issue is the colossal waste generated.
Would you find yourself in line with the designer, the craftsman and the fine artist equally, does it balance differently, or does this matter at all?
B: My background was in Architecture, so mostly (I made) rectilinear forms and hardly any organic stuff. I had to break out of that shell. The furniture I’m doing is more rectilinear, but other stuff I’m working on is a merging of both. But its also about trying to do everything in my shop by myself.
C: It’s the blending of those disciplines and more that is defining the contemporary zeitgeist. Our world is too complex to work with it through only one discipline now. If art contextualizes ideas and design simplifies them it makes sense to find the common ground between our disciplines. If my limits are that it has to be reproducible and has to meet a standard of perfection, than how far can it go the other way if I don’t have those same constraints? We’re on the fringe of a traditional design practice. If it was designed for mass production it would have to meet certain criteria, but if we accept the idea that it doesn’t have to be reproducible and doesn’t have to mimic a commercial form, or process, then what are the limits of that?
Studio assistants Neppa and Nirma applying gold tinted foil to Chris’s furniture. Detroit, MI
B: There’s still a lot of decent furniture makers that make their solid wood stuff by hand, but thats all high price point, so I guess its a matter of finding out where you want to be.
J: There is opportunity to operate outside of industry while not existing wholly independent of it. Industry is fine tuned for maximum efficiencies – the quickest and most economical means of production on a massive level. This is a kind of extreme. We’re operating somewhere on the other end – possibly the least efficient means of production. But it is not traditional handmade – its craft imposed on hyper-engineered materials and processes.
C: There are new materials that don’t have form yet, outside of their industrial form. In Jack’s case, he takes industrial materials and makes them beautiful and mysterious. I mean they’re waste pipes that carry our shit! And he turns them into show stopping work.
B: Its application too, like rethinking the functionality of a piece. So having the craft, the design… being able to bounce in all kinds of realms. A lot of it is: “If this is what I want the end product to be, how do I get there?”
Our relationship to materials is always changing, so thinking of certain types of wood or stone can seem like materials with a limited availability, while plastics, and other petroleum products appear to be limitless, even though they there are unsustainable and rely on our oil supply. Yet, the highly processed nature of them, requiring a lot of human intervention, makes them seem like they have no end, like there is an internet effect on them.
“CORK1 Series” by Brian DuBois. Coffee Table, side table, end table and LED light (not shown). Photo credit: PD Rearick
C: With new opportunities in material there is less precedent to draw from. It’s exciting; I tightrope walk of sorts, long way to fall down but worth the risk. But like the Internet we pull from, sample and re-mix historical references in new contexts. My work is full of disparate historical art, design and film references, but I try and avoid any one dominant reference, leaving more room for interpretation.
B: Its important to take the materials and find out what their breaking points are. If you look at Jack’s work, he heated up a (PVC) tube and started bending it and breaking it. In his “Broken Board” Series, he started breaking (the boards) with his bare hands [laughs]. So its also about what can we get from these forms without overly analyzing the fabrication process.
C: Maybe the pink foam is something easy that anyone can shape, so it takes less craft and skill at first. We’ve become babes in the woods when it comes to traditional materials and processes. We approach pink foam with the same naivety as we would primitive materials like stone or wood. I don’t think this is necessarily good or bad, it just means our ways of understanding our world are shifting.
Is furniture design losing its relationship to the concerns of the middle and working classes? With all of the mass produced furniture available at giant retailers like IKEA, does the designer have to choose the market he or she wants to be a part of, or is there still room for all price brackets?
B: When you look at Mid Century Modern furniture, it really holds its value. Many people would hesitate to spend $2500 on a handcrafted coffee table, even though it could last your whole lifetime and be passed down to your children. At IKEA, the designs are OK, but their connections and workmanship are really poor. Its unsustainable and just gets thrown out in a year, goes to landfills and the cycle continues. If people are willing to spend $30 – 40K on a car which depreciates half its value as soon as they take it off the lot, why not spend a fraction of that on some really nice furniture that will last?
C: You must choose your market, and you can operate on a scale of price points. My work exists for two markets, the Art market and the Community market. One trades in the dollar the other in social currency.
As far as IKEA: My grandparents have had the same bedroom furniture suite for over 40 years.
I asked Grandma Schanck about it recently, she told me they bought it when they wed. She’s like “I hate it. Your grandfather picked it out.” So I say, “If you hate it, why did you have it for 40 years?” To me she says, “Because there’s nothing wrong with it.” What do you say to that?! Stubborn, love her to death.
So how important is taste in terms of function? Conceptually, I think IKEA is cool; it could do with more range in attitude but I like that you can change furnishings quickly and inexpensively as you change your identity. I don’t operate in that market, but I love lingonberries, so it’s all good. I would never deliberately try and make anything timeless. I expect my work could be outdated before we get through this interview.
J: I don’t have anything against IKEA. In some ways, they offer an education. I don’t think we tend to get the same design exposure in this country as you would elsewhere in the world. I grew up thinking that turned table legs would be something I wanted in my own home, until a couple of years ago when I started studying (design). I don’t think anyone is at fault for the lack of exposure or education. These mass outlets where different types of furniture are being offered at a cheap level only does good, because its a gateway.
So its a starting point. As Brian said, most people would balk at the price of a handmade piece of furniture because we live in a disposable culture. But its a push and pull, right? Because some of it is a negative.
C: Sure, there is a relationship, but we all don’t still dress in the dress of the 50’s right? Everything changes and it’s a good thing. I think we hold onto that modern look and ideal because of a time it symbolized, but really that time was shit if you weren’t a white male. I’m bias but I prefer the time we live in now, so what does now look like? I mean It’s all about variety isn’t it? You can rock a Forever 21 top with Prada shoes, just as you can mix your interior with hi and low. The world’s big enough for historical and contemporary worlds to co-exist, in fact it helps us locate ourselves in time.
J: None of us can afford our own furniture, so this conversation is a little funny. [laughs] We are on an extreme pole where we make things for a gallery, so its in the vein of an artist, and our endgame isn’t to bring cheap, affordable furniture to the masses.
“PVC Series: Pressed” by Jack Craig. PVC water mains heated and pressured on stone.
Chris, you mentioned you had a project for a class you teach at Lawrence Tech (University), where you were trying to get your class to address “the failings of Modernism”. Can the three of you elaborate on that idea?
C: Modernism doesn’t address the tastes of individuals. We designers and artists alike are often guilty of making work with a perfect resting or display place in mind for our work. Whether an untarnished white cube, a compliant scenario or an empty level lot. But the world and our aging built environment is a messy and wonderfully imperfect place.
So as a class we locate our work in a very real context. I take my Furniture Design students into the home of a participating family in Banglatown, Detroit. The family welcomes the students and provides them with a specific cultural context for their designs. In addition to pragmatic needs, the students’ work takes shape through a lens of feminine modernity. Where taste and decoration play as important a role as dimensional relationships. The student’s work lives on in the interior of the family’s home.
B: As designers, it’s important to have that client contact, as they may have a whole new perspective. Sometimes you have to ask people what they want from a coffee table or a kitchen table. There has to be something else involved besides making it look cool. There has to be a functionality specific to the person… sometimes the function has more importance than the form, and sometimes meeting in the middle is really hard.
C: What I’ve learned from working with other people that Modernism doesn’t address is that taste matters, no matter how much money you have. I went sofa shopping with the same clients for them to purchase a set of sofas at a second hand furniture shop and it came down to two sets. One was more comfortable but had the wrong aesthetic, and the other was less comfortable but looked the way they wanted. The decision was still made favoring aesthetics opposed to comfort. Theres a trade off made on one side of the spectrum. So when we design work for the couture market, there’s a tradeoff there too, maybe with performance again over look. What’s missing in IKEA furniture is the personality: the chips on the surfaces and being customizable, reflecting you and not just every other person that has the same thing. And thats what our work starts to do. The range of human experience and emotion is far too great for only one type of aspirational design. We want Mozart and Miley, at least I do.
What sort of trends are you seeing right now in design and working in Detroit that you hope continue this year?
C: I think the trends are really exciting right now. We live in a city where the roles of artist, citizen, designer and architect are all blurred into a maker culture. That culture is innovating with social entrepreneurship and practice. The community of makers here is my biggest inspiration, they’re my creative heroes. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be practicing.
“Gold Studio Desk” by Chris Schanck
B: Being here my whole life, you see it in waves. I’m just afraid that this movement doesn’t die down in two years and then its back to totally talking shit about Detroit. The city was always set up for fabrication because of the auto industry, so I think its one of the only cities that has everything you need to make, from materials to labor. To be able to come to my shop and know I only have to drive up to a half hour to get anything I want is a good thing. Rent is cheap here, which is causing a lot of people from other cities to move here. You can get a lot of space for pennies on the dollar compared to NY or Chicago.
J: We are in the middle of a Memphis revival. It’s all faux finishes, large geometric shapes, high saturated disparate colors, and squiggle lines. What does it mean now that we’re seeing it again 30 years later? I’m not sure. The movement originally was characterized by a sort of exuberance, satire, and anti-good taste. I think these things are still present but now that it’s being recycled it means something a little different. It is like because it’s pulled from the ‘80s, it is somehow even more anti-taste. Maybe it’s the design equivalent of the horror genre. It’s pain crossed with pleasure.
What do you have in store for the coming year?
B: I’m downscaling things this year and focusing on smaller projects. I’ve got some lights I’m working on, some tableware, glasses, jewelry, coaster set — just little stuff this year. Its easier to ship that stuff out. I’m still working on my furniture, but I gotta keep scratchin at doors to get my products out there. Maybe this will lead to some larger manufacturing. I always have to be busy, otherwise I go crazy.
C: Jack and I are doing a show this May at Johnson Trading Gallery in NYC.
Then I’m preparing for a show at Almine Rech this September in Paris.
Brian DuBois and Chris Schanck earned an MFA in 3D from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI in 2011. Jack Craig earned an MFA in 3D from Cranbrook in 2012. Thanks to the three of them for taking the time to meet with me and discuss their work and ideas. Thanks also to Brian for hosting us in his shop. For more of their work, check out the following sites:
Miley Cyrus is growing up in a fishbowl, where every awkward moment and undeveloped thought is on display for the world to see, react to and comment on, endlessly. As a country, we construct the cult of Miley sometimes even more than she, her publicist or record label does. Miley Cyrus has become an avatar, just as Hannah Montana was, as customizable as a Scion and as real as an American Girl doll. As we have a hand in creating her personae, her personae is a reflection of us, or our fantasies. Therefore, no matter how much she rebels against the mainstream, she can only help define it. The more she destroys her past image as teenage Miley, the more she canonizes it. The more she rebels, the more rebellion we want, even as it looks a lot like Low Sodium Rebellion in a can. We act shocked though we really aren’t, because we too are playing a role, just as she.
We love celebrities who represent the idyllic American: Beautiful, powerful, strong, intelligent, talented, with the same moral standards as us. We shower them in wealth in order to see how they use it, and so we can have it vicariously. We want these celebrities to act out roles in their real lives, not just in films. They appear on late night interviews promoting their films, on the Red Carpet and charity events as they pose for us. This isn’t enough, so thankfully, we also see them walking their dogs, eating out, drunk at clubs, entering and exiting Hollywood parties. We see them grocery shopping without makeup, with their kids, with other celebrity lovers, in court, hungover, and having sex in grainy cell phone videos. We have so much footage of their lives “off the screen” that they don’t need to exist otherwise.
When we actually come face to face with a celebrity, it is a collision of our lived world and our media world. It is a revelation of mutual existence: that they exist in our space, they can see us as we can them, and so we exist as well. Needing proof for ourself and our friends, that they exist, and that we exist too, a cell phone photo of them is imperative. This must get uploaded to the internet immediately, and now we have returned them to their natural habitat: the media world. Just as they primarily exist in the media world, we only exist in their world as long as we tweet, post, like, share and comment. By uploading a selfie to our facebook feed, we are attempting to insert our lived reality into the media world, used as a mirror to prove our existence, to define our character and how it fits within the pantheon of American myth. It is pedestrian cosplay and hipster role playing.
Its human nature to internalize our faults and dwell on them until they manifest into something larger and looming overhead. The past decade has seen serious changes to our country’s image: warmongering, weakened, bankrupt, obese, fragile, homeless; as well as a growing rift between the working class and the capitalist class, almost completely obliterating the middle class, which is far smaller than any politician will ever admit. While these perceptions have been there since the 80’s and 90’s, it took until 9/11 for us to see them. Global media, 24/7 coverage of war and a need to understand why anyone would want to “attack our freedom”, has led to a breathtaking reflection and reassessment of who we are as a culture, through the Biggest Loser, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Extreme Couponing, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Lost, Breaking Bad, Weeds, etc., etc. We don’t even consciously understand it, but we have seen ourselves as the underdogs, the unabashed scum, those who can break free of their past, those who can overcome and those who will crumble. Ordinary people who set out with good intentions but became greedy and selfish monsters. Yet as we assess ourselves through the entertainment we consume, we lose a true basis for assessment. It is calculated recycling of American myths, regurgitation of roles and tropes, filtering of current events that are replayed as fiction in order for us to learn how we feel about them. As we gravitate towards the fiction to teach us, and blur the lines of what is real and entertainment, it all starts to become real, in some way.
November 20, 2013 · Print This Article
Purveyor of melancholy cartoon moments, amorphous shape and line, melting abstract symbolism and form fluidly, Arturo Herrera creates new meanings from global popular culture and the discarded memories available at thrift stores. With gorgeous abstract dialogue, he cuts into our subconscious, seeking dark realities in the seemingly innocent imagery of childhood. Yet this is globally corporate sentiment which he makes us aware of; in homage to past Modernist movements, he hopes to awaken our senses from the dreamy haze they reside. References to Pollack appear as dripping webs of networked possibilities in immigration halls, allowing art to be the key to success in the cutthroat Americas. Simple gestural brush strokes, epic in scale on institutional walls, have the purity both the Ab Exs and cartoonists long for. With clear precision and acute awareness, Herrera depicts the line between the Surrealist’s dream and the failure in Dada. Partaking, we become the tight rope walker and must balance accordingly between his worlds and Art’s past. For his upcoming exhibition at Corbett vs. Dempsey in Chicago this December, he reveals new work within the intimacy of the printed book; showcasing several altered found books in a sensibility all his own; muted yet powerful, melancholic yet strong, abstract yet concrete, visceral, tangible. In this, he enlivens us to the subjugation our senses experience in the digital age.
I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Arturo this Fall during his visit to Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Bloomfield Hills, MI.
Arturo Herrera Books, 2012. Set No. 2 of six individual sets. Detail of
Graphiker der Gegenwart – Lesser Ury Lothar Brieger, silkscreen and mixed media on paper. 7.9 x 5.9 x 0.3 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Tom Friel: You don’t seem to deny the narratives of your source material, but instead keep an emotional or subconscious link to the meaning of the original imagery while altering the visual elements through college and abstraction. Does a process like this ultimately aim to create new stories or truths? Could your invented meanings become equal with the original, and if so, do they become a part of the narrative from the source imagery?
Arturo Herrera: Using everyday printed materials which are instantly recognizable leads the viewer directly into the image and at once a connection is established. Crashing our invented, private meanings onto a newly constructed image only adds to the impact of the original source. This undoing of linearity is attractive to me.
TF: Just to compare some of the works you were doing a few years ago, like “Get it Right (Pink)” , “Untitled (From the Top)” , to more recent works like “Richard” and “Giuseppe”, both 2012: the latter are visually dense works overloading the eye with a multitude of colors and shapes, while the earlier pieces I mention are almost minimalist in nature. Throughout, there is lyricism in the compositions, that everything was always meant to be there from the start. Is the complexity of these later works an evolution from the previous, or are you responding to another type of collage so prevalent today — the bombardment of information via the internet and media, where things are literally linked by tiny one word threads as their commonality? Or perhaps is it a similar symptom of 21st century living; a constant acceleration through technology and the inflated availability of choice. (Since collage so often directly deals with the idea of choice…)
AH: The recent works ‘Richard,’ ‘Giuseppe,’ and ‘ Johannes‘ are three mixed media editions I made for Pace Prints in 2012. That same year I had the solo shows called Series at Corbett vs Dempsey in Chicago and at Thomas Dane in London. My intention with that body of work was not to overwhelm the audience with information but a way of exposing a personal lexicon. To put it all out there if you wish. The goal was to make something polluted and non hierarchical. It dealt more with wanting to see what a disintegration of my own sources could look like. I guess it is an organic process that every artist goes through.
TF: An overload via critical mass. They are quite nice, and I guess I was curious also because of how successful these, and other highly intricate works are that you have recently completed. Maybe its the control you have over the collage process that allows for so much to happen in one work and it not be too much, but just perfect.
It seems there are a lot of formal discussions you wish to engage with the work, like engaging the medium or the visual qualities of abstraction. While collaging is a piecing together of disparate images and meanings to create new meanings, we approach abstraction as a collage our brains compose. In other words, we often try to create concrete images out of the abstractions, like Rorschach tests. Having experienced abstraction in art for so long, we tend to allow abstraction to remain as these pure visual and undefinable moments. Elements of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop can be found in your work. So often, we try to define artists by their relationship to art of the past. While many people may respond to art in this manner, it can dominate the conversations around the work. Is this something that is interesting to you, or do you find the comparisons to derail broader meanings of the work?
Arturo Herrera Ariadne auf Naxos 2012, collage and mixed media on paper, three elements, 25 1/4 x 19 1/2 inches each. Courtesy of the artist.
AH: Even though I am interested in all those movements especially modernist painting, surrealist collage, abstract expressionism, and pop art not very many people have discussed that aspect of the work in depth. The earlier texts hovered around children’s fairy tale and the psychoanalytical subconscious. At the moment the discussions deal more specifically with abstract painting and its references and the continued impact of collage in today’s contemporary art practice.
TF: Many of your older works utilize cartoon imagery in them, or reference cartoons through a similar line quality; fluid curvilinear lines which undulate and ooze, they drip and tumble around the page in an abstract free fall of white gloved hands morphing into a propellor or a bulbous nose. These increasingly abstract works strongly reference one of the more common and beloved cartoons cliches: the cloud surrounding a cartoon brawl, with arms and noses peeking out in what is an otherwise hard to visually explain mess of action, passion and ecstasy. Locating your composition in one still image instead of many animated cells, the undefined moments of action wage without clear understanding of whose limb is whose. So, almost lifted directly out of the very cartoons is a scene which your work often explores, the familiar returning to the unfamiliar. This is a very important element of your work, the sense of subverting established cultural entities, like Disney cartoons. It also lends itself to the uncanny, which I don’t think you’ve ever talked about concerning your work.
AH: Collage combines dislocated fragments that usually generate irreverent images full of irrationality. No uprooted source that has been cut, juxtaposed and glued into a new visual entity remains the same. Some of my works play with violence, sexuality and absurdity. It is important having these as borders of psychological interaction. It brings an unexpected, latent meaning to an established/familiar cultural icon and that contributes to the resonance of the work.
TF: You have described your initial involvement with collage as a means to create art without much money, space or many materials. At this point though, you have defined a practice within it, and so it seems you have come to embrace collage wholly! In addition, you have done many wall paintings and felt pieces; the felt works being increasingly sculptural. Are there other mediums now that your circumstances are different you would like to invest your time in more, or does the immediacy and directness of collage make it the perfect medium for you?
AH: I started working with paper when I first moved to NY in the late 80’s. It was the ideal medium because it was easily available and inexpensive. It was incredibly fast to make collages and it allowed the small working area to be relatively clean and free of toxic fumes. I was fortunate later on that I had the chance to work with painted MDF, raw steel and photography. Right now I am painting with oils on canvas and on linen. It is amazing how different and slow the process is. I have been changing gears lately and the challenge is invigorating.
Arturo Herrera Stampatore 2012, collage and mixed media on paper, 14 x 17 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
TF: Books have a visceral connection to us that many other objects do not. They are both precious and pulp repositories of ideas and culture, high and low. Their rich history in human development and civilization contribute to a realness and visceral quality. Its such that, abandoned books can carry the sense that their ideas and information contained within are obsolete or out of fashion, even if that isn’t truly the case. With the decline of printed books, your sense of the obsolete is pointed. Its almost as to keep these objects alive in the present, we need to alter them in ways that we can feel or sense beyond the LED or LCD screen. There is such a different relationship to using a Kindle or laptop to read a book, that having that physical presence altered, makes us aware of the distance we have created and slowly removed ourselves from. Though the Kindle tries to recreate the experience of a physical book, it loses the character and intimacy. Can you give a preview of your upcoming exhibition this December at Corbett vs. Dempsey?
AH: The new show at Corbett vs Dempsey consists of found books that have been silkscreened painted, stained and /or painted. There are sixty books in the series grouped in six boxes of ten books each. By obliterating their content, I destroy their original function while transforming them into something entirely different. These discarded paperbacks and hardcovers become new again as constructed artworks. They continually refer back to their origins while proposing multiples readings on history and art, the obsolete and the fetish, the precious and the abject.
“Arturo Herrera: Books” on view at Corbett vs. Dempsey Dec. 13 – Jan. 25, 2014
1120 N. Ashland Ave., 3rd Floor, Chicago, Illinois 60622
I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Arturo this Fall during his visit to Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Thanks to Arturo Herrera for his time in the many stages of this interview. His kindness and warmth are much appreciated. Also thanks to Julia Hendrickson and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Sarah Turner and Trisha Holt of Cranbrook Academy of Art for their help; without them, this interview would not have been possible.
October 16, 2013 · Print This Article
The Art Market is inflating out of control, making all but the wealthiest few cry foul. Like it or not, this is affecting the way contemporary art is viewed and thought about. Meanwhile, Jeff Koons continues to be the perfect Poster Boy for the inflation, and it just so happens he has work depicting the nothingness inside the bubble. Simultaneously, Banksy goes for a stroll in New York’s neighborhoods proposing a different model. Is this the beginning of the end of the glutonous market? Or is this merely a long beginning?
Don’t make the mistake of trying to analyze the Jeff Koons album cover work for Lady Gaga as if it were art. Think of it instead as a publicity stunt to drum up hype for his upcoming retrospective at the Whitney this summer. On the day the album cover was released, mtv.com ran a story with the headline: “Lady Gaga is Jeff Koons’ Biggest Fan…But Who is He?” This collage of leftover studio remnants and a Botticelli print gets him access to a generation of people who are not likely looking at a lot of contemporary art, beefing up his celebrity status which he craves, at the same time adding to ticket sales. This, and the animosity from art enthusiasts will help make his retrospective THE BEST EVER!! Just a couple weeks before the Lady Garbage cover, T magazine – the glossy pulp supplement in the NY Times – had a stereotypically vapid conversation with the artist about his recent commission from Dom Perignon to made a limited edition DNA – shaped champagne bottle. Low end and high end commodity containers from ol’ Koonie Balloonie. Not too different from anything he has done in the past, but the labeling becomes ever more irksome. Consider his output for the last decade, where most of his work is sold before its finished, and may only show at auction instead of a gallery or museum. Not that this is such a terrible thing. What has basically become a high end boutique practice is frustrating mostly because it is helping fuel the glut of the art market, and then regurgitated into the art world as important to the production and dissemination of art, to negative affect. As long as we wallow in the crystal palaces of Koons, Hirst and Murakami, we’ll think that art is as uninspired as Gormley, Marden and Whiteread.
Koons is in this rare position of being accessible to everyone but only collectable to a small handful of the richest in the world. As Carl Swanson recently stated in Vulture: “Koons can be the art world’s great populist artisan, even as he operates as its most exclusive salesman.” Everything about the work is right there, so there’s nothing to get. It is perfection and simplicity, the kind of thing that mocks you for looking too hard at it. Since critics are trained to look hard at things, they tend to hate Koons. And its boring to write about art just by describing what it looks like, so people tend to write about his career, his collectors, his record breaking prices at the market, his studio and the process of making his work. This only helps to build a persona around the artist, giving him the superstar flair that these major collectors are after. (And with this week’s art fair, London’s Frieze officially bigger and more bloated than ever, superstars have never been more in vogue.)
Both interesting and frustrating is how Jeff Koons’ rise to the art commodity machine that he is may have helped shape the way the art market is an increasingly insiders game of fewer and fewer players more knowledgable about trading commodities than how to tell good work from bad. And with the auction prices soaring, the big named galleries just keep getting bigger in a kind of go-for-broke mentality* (not breaking them, just the artists they rep, in less of a financial type of broke and more of an artistic quality and integrity type.)
[*for a throughly depressing take on this, see Jerry Saltz’s article on Vulture this week.]
At the same time all the grumbling about Koons’ latest fart hit the web, Banksy has been doing a residency in NYC, creating work in the city in his typical fashion – covert and unannounced – the opposite of how you’re supposed to make art. While seemingly on the other side of the art world, there are a lot of similarities between the two artists. Maybe Banksy isn’t able to sell his graffiti work for 33 mil, but he is still operating inside the art market, selling regularly and at high prices. Lately, his work is often either garishly covered by a piece of plexiglass bolted to the wall he painted it on or is removed and sold, either way being seen by an enterprising public as separate from graffiti art and reborn as high art/commodity. His work is no stranger to auctions, museum and gallery shows, while being loved by mainstream society. His imagery is understood at first look, you don’t need to read into it, and if you are, then you probably don’t get it. Also like Koons, art critics hate writing about Banksy, saying there isn’t enough to write about, because it is too surface and he isn’t playing the game. But this game is being co opted by the wealthiest of collectors who have realized there is a market that won’t burst and can’t crash, so they’ve taken advantage of it. Buying a Koons gets you a ticket into a very exclusive club. Buying the Banksy at auction though, means that you probably don’t get it, because his work is to be freely viewed and is mocking the very lopsided system of capitalism that allowed you to buy it at auction in the first place. Getting it, though, is no longer important. Its having it.
As his position in the art world becomes more clear, Banksy’s art frequently criticizes the market, and the latest example of this was a street sale of many of his iconic works on white canvases for $60 on the sidewalks of NYC. The work and the sale later appeared on his website, which is his way of providing provenance. These single color spray painted politically charged images lost all meaning shoved within the borders of these small store bought canvases, sold on the street among vendors hocking watercolors and prints of impressionist styled paintings. Subverted now to talk about the politics of class, taste and accessibility in a market that is more often hurting artists and keeping way too many people out of collecting art. It stifles artistic creativity to the point where every idea is either a recombination of greatest hits by the artist or an experiment to see how much money can prop up a bad idea. Artists start to flounder when they should be thriving. Shows are created for the specific tastes of the market and of a few clientele. Everything becomes dross and it feels like you are wading through a lake of effervescent puke whenever you go to a big exhibition, and anymore, they’re all big. ‘Cause if not, they may as well not happen at all. More and more, it sucks harder and harder to be a practicing artist in this climate. Unless, of course, you’re Jeff Koons.
In the wake of the recently announced Detroit bankruptcy, and amid the uncertain fate of the Detroit Institute of the Arts’ collection, the Knight Foundation revealed the winners of Knight Arts Challenge: Detroit last week. 56 winners — from individuals, collectives and established organizations and institutions — were awarded grant money ranging from $5,000 to $120,000, given the chance for art to lift a community in the way an emergency manager and bankruptcy cannot: spiritually, mentally, passionately; with love and tenderness. While the Detroit bankruptcy proceedings will be fat cats and brass tacks, pushing elected officials and community members further out of the decision making, the Knight Challenge grant recipients will aim to return power to the people, on micro levels, yet with respect and agency given to the very people in the communities these artists and groups will work with. Thus, the award winners, in total given $2.1 million, represent a ray of hope in the city’s immediate future and may quickly change the landscape of the city if they are successful.
The Knight Arts Challenge: Detroit is an initiative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and is a $9 million dollar campaign to draw from the talent of the city, to keep creative people in the city, as an investment in the arts of Detroit. It follows from the adage “Where culture can breed, people will breed” (I just made that up), but its a lot like “If you build it, they will come” in that it is the arts that build a city or community, that the vitality of the culture sustains the soul and makes people want to live somewhere, that they need to live there, even if there’s no public transportation, lack of basic services like trash removal or functioning street lamps; even if the rest of the country has given up on the place, it still has potential that can be seen and felt. Because art and music has a deep history in Detroit, as does innovation and invention.
The winning entries are diverse, and as all were required to take place in or affect Detroit directly, most of them are geared towards working with the communities of the city to instill positive change, empowerment and growth. They ranged from creating a lending library of contemporary Detroit artwork for residents to live with and potentially buy, creative writing workshops, hyperlocal radio broadcasts to create a sound collage while driving through the city, a residency program for musicians outside of Detroit to collaborate with the local musicians, a competition to foster more talent in contemporary Jazz, production of guitars made from reclaimed wood from demolished homes in the city, an artist residency program in city elementary school, seed money to expand an established film fest into a larger event with national status, a nationwide tour of an interactive project geared at engaging viewers with ground roots change, and many many more. One that I find compelling just from its blurb on the website is a video project conceived by the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History:
“To illuminate some of Detroit’s dark neighborhood streets physically and spiritually, the museum will commission a series of video art installations showcasing the faces and wisdom of the city’s elders. In conjunction with a team of Detroit media artists, distinguished filmmaker Julie Dash will create the works. Each will seek to bring light to the legacy, vitality and fabric of Detroit, while providing safe passage for residents in a city in which a recent survey said some 40 percent of streetlights were in disrepair.”
The phrase “40% of streetlights were in disrepair” is not an exaggeration, but should say “are not working at all”. So many streets in the city are completely dark at night, inviting all sorts of violent crime, not to mention further lowering the quality of life experienced by residents in those areas. The temporary lighting of these streets, with proud images and text of the city’s past will no doubt be a jolt to the senses. What is needed, of course, is for working streetlights to once again be installed. Ultimately, this will be more powerful than an artwork in terms of transformation. One hopes that this project acts as a catalyst for that to happen, by literally shining a light on a huge problem in the city.
I sincerely hope Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is devising some way to get the street lamps, as well as other crucial needs of the city taken care of. Obviously, he isn’t interested in the arts, as he wants to strip the city of its culture for quick cash. Which art institution will be next on the chopping block? It seems important that now someone is trying to invest in the arts of Detroit. Along with Kresge, a more established arts grant in the Detroit region, a big push is being made to not only keep talent in the city and to nurture the arts, but together they breed an outlook on the art of Detroit as a whole: within five years time (or hell, right now) if someone wanted to quickly distinguish the art of Detroit, they would probably throw out words like “community engaged”, “guerrilla”, “activist”, or the foul phrase “social practice”. Not to poop in the punchbowl, but as a narcissistic artist bent on only furthering my own artistic hopes and dreams, I find this potentially disturbing, that a city’s identity could be considered along terms of social practice, as aesthetics are so often ignored with work that is community engaged. For now, though, I am more than happy to content to leave this issue for the future, a future where we can afford to consider beauty alone, and not pragmatism and politics. Knight Arts Challenge is opening doors that seemed demolished long ago. Hell, its national news that we just got a grocery store in downtown for christsakes.
It is important to note that ALL of the recipients of Knight Arts Challenge will only get funding if the recipients find matching funds within one year. For more information on the Knight Arts Challenge, visit their website: