Tag Archives: exhibitions

i heart my chains

"Chain Letter" installation shot

“Chain Letter” installation. Photo by Tanya Ragir.

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about the “Chain Letter” show at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, which I criticized on a number of grounds related to the exploitation of artists. The gallery has just circulated an email with links to reviews of the show, and my anti-puff-piece was naturally not included in the list. So I thought I’d follow up with a review of the reviews, since I still think the larger subject is important.

None of the reviews I read had much to say about the art beyond the obvious—there was work in many styles and most media, especially 3D assemblages, and a good deal of it used found materials. It was almost as though the writers felt that the “pseudo-democratic” structure of the show constrained them from passing judgment on the quality of the work. The aggregate effect of the reviews is of politeness trumping honesty; there is just no visible enthusiasm for the work in the show as art.

Several writers took the position that the show was a success as a community event: artists hanging out together on installation day, helping each other place their work, partying at the opening. For one writer, Carol Cheh, “this huge instant community of artists was probably the closest I’ve come to experiencing some kind of utopia.” Really? Elsewhere in her piece there is an image of “a gallery literally bulging with art, kind of like the fat, overstuffed man in the Monty Python sketch who eats one last ‘wafer-thin mint’ and ends up exploding.” Christopher Knight in the L.A. Times online edition called the show a “Brobdingnagian found-object assemblage scavenged from endless Internet highways.” On the Huffington Post, Lisa Adams wrote: “What impacted me most was the amount of time, energy and/or money the vast majority of artists put into the pieces they submitted. I interpreted this to indicate that many artists saw Chain Letter as perhaps the one opportunity to have their work seen in an ‘A’ list gallery by someone of substance, meaning someone in the art world who has the power to do something about their work. It made me sad.” Utopia, anyone?

Cheh also remarks that that if every artist had said ‘yes’ to their invitation, “the power of that would be infinite, world-changing.” This is hyperbole pure and simple, and wishful thinking as well. And in any case, where would all that art have gone? Cheh herself notes that Shoshana Wayne stopped accepting artworks by the end of installation day, capping the show at around 1600 pieces. In other words, the gallery didn’t even live up to the contract implicit in its initial invitation. (I imagine those artists turned away might have a legal case, but that’s not my bailiwick.) Although I think the show was ridiculous from the get-go, I also think the gallery should not have capped entries; rather, it should have kept going until the last artist in line was signed in and the last piece of art wedged in with the others. Something aesthetically interesting might actually have happened at that point. Stopping short betrayed the initial idea, that extreme premise that captivated all those artists, and it allowed the gallery to preserve, barely, the illusion that this entire event had anything at all to do with seeing art.

installation day of “Chain Letter” show. Photo by Carol Cheh.

It’s not as if the math was hard to do or the end hard to foresee, once you started the logorithmic scale-up of invitations from 1 to 10 to 100 and so on. An artist I know ran the calculations out and determined that (barring duplications, of which there were in fact a lot) 11 billion people would have been invited by day 11, in a world with a population of 7 billion. In what possible way is the world changed by inviting potentially everyone on the planet to think of themselves as an artist admired by some other artist so that they can cram their artwork into a small set of warehouse spaces in southern California? As a visible manifestation of the ‘six degrees of separation’ principle, fine. As a moment of involuntary Dada, excellent. As anything else, a monumental waste of time.

"Chain Letter" tee-shirts

“Chain Letter” tee-shirts by Carleton Christy, as worn by artists Gordon Winiemko (left) and Jeff Foye (right). Photo by Daniel Hawkins.

It is noteworthy that the participants themselves started referring to the event as “Artmaggedon”—inspired no doubt by the almost simultaneous naming of the 405 freeway closure as “Carmaggedon,” a similarly hyperbolic title for a near-nonevent. Certainly a tongue-in-cheek name, but one that points nonetheless to the underlying idea of catastrophe. Indeed, the reviews of this show take the tone and structure of a favorite American storyline: the goodwill and optimism of plucky individuals in the face of disaster (“a we’re-all-in-this-together spirit“). In this case, however, they can’t admit the disaster so they focus on the good parts: hanging out and helping one another; what another writer termed “friendly chaos.” (Worker solidarity: nonunion labor at the factory.) But did anyone really doubt that artists have tons of mutual respect and a sense of being bound together as underdogs in a culture that largely despises them?

Another tack taken by reviewers—and carefully promoted by the gallery’s initial positioning of the show—is that “Chain Letter” is somehow a shining testimony to the power and promise of social media. In one sense it is, in that it’s become enormously easier to generate mass events, whether flash mobs or political campaigns or 1600-person shows, or the corresponding traffic jam outside Bergamot Station over which several of the show’s reviewers dwell. SigAlert equals success because, yes, bigger is always better. And with the rise of social media it’s become easier to capture the creative energy of other people to fuel one’s own career—a process that’s been going on since the earliest days of the web and that has become glamorized as crowd-sourcing. As one web commentator noted: “Here, at Bergamot Station, in the summer of 2011, we all became one big installation piece by Harvey and Cummings.” (Don’t just follow the money: follow the power.) As I see it, almost the only people who stand to gain anything more from this show than some ‘hanging out with friendly strangers’ time are its curators—or ‘instigators’, as they prefer to be called—whose names are all over the reviews and who will undoubtedly harvest enough street cred from this event that they can undertake their next SigAlert-generating spectacle.

Meanwhile, participants have been reminded that if they don’t pick up their pieces by 2 pm on the day they’ve been assigned, their work will be “discarded.” No exceptions! And don’t let the door slam you in the ass on the way out.

Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , , |

rattling the chains

queue for "Chain Letter" installation

Queue for "Chain Letter" installation. Photo by Calethia DeConto.

Earlier this summer I received an email from a friend inviting me to take part in an exhibition entitled “Chain Letter” curated by Christian Cummings & Doug Harvey at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica. The invitation read in part:

“Chain Letter” is a group show wherein 10 artists have been invited to participate. Those 10 then invite 10 artists whom they admire. Those 10 invite 10 more and so on. This cycle continues for 30 days.

The result is an exponentially massive, artist-curated group show based entirely on admiration.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve been invited to take part in such ‘artist invites artist’ shows, but in most cases the invite chain has been only one or two links long. So the first thing that struck me about this show was those works “exponentially massive.” No kidding: I invite 10 people, they each invite 10 more (making 111 so far), they invite 10 more (1,111), and so on for 30 days. Multiplied by all the other people doing the same thing along other branches of the tree. Even accounting for duplicate invitations and decisions not to participate on the part of many invitees, it still seemed to me unlikely that the artworks so solicited would be likely to fit in anything much less than an airplane hangar.

Another thing that struck me about the invitation was the degree to which responsibility—by which I mean labor and costs—was shifted from the gallery to the artist. Other rules for the show included the following:

  • Artists are entirely responsible for installing their own work.
  • Artists must bring their work to the show in a single 8-hour installation window.
  • Artists must pick up their own work at the end of the show, and they risk having it “recycled, traded or discarded” if they miss the specific pickup window.
  • Artists must not email the curators or venue with questions.
Scamwatch, 2011

Scamwatch, 2011

Ok, so I’m all for a DIY approach in many instances, and I’ve certainly taken part in shows and events where a good deal of the organization, installation, and so on fell on the artists. Even down to painting the venue—every artist I know has been there, done that. And it can be exceedingly worthwhile to work with a gallery or other venue this way. But here’s an instance where all the labor and expense is being thrown on the artists—truck rental costs, shipping costs, insurance, moving time, installation and deinstallation, not to mention the cost of making the work in the first place—and for what? The chance to place one’s work in a mass exhibition where it can get lost among perhaps a few thousand other works? Where’s the upside here?

At first I thought I wouldn’t take part, but I passed on the invite to a bunch of people I admire anyway (more than the 10 specified—I figured there was no point being restrained if the numbers were going to become astronomical anyhow). Ultimately I decided to make an infographic piece expressing my reservations about these kinds of chain-invite shows, as a kind of public service. It’s styled after scam-watch websites like this one and this other one. I’ve emailed it to all the artists I invited, as well as the person who initially invited me, with a note that they are welcome to further distribute it in any way. I printed it out poster size for the show itself, and I reproduce the web version here at left. Since the text is very small at blog jpeg size, I’ve created a separate post with the main text of the piece. But here is an excerpt:

Artists are often not aware until too late that the total number of artists who can be “accepted” into a single show through this kind of chain email tree can easily reach the thousands in a short time. This logarithmic escalation effect is similar to that seen in other pyramidal set-ups, such as Ponzi schemes.

What this means is that even artists who manage to claim space for their own work during the installation window are likely to find themselves in an extremely crowded, “salon-style” show with little prospect that their work will stand out from the crowd of other objects. Artworks that are fragile, small, require sound isolation, or have other special requirements will especially suffer. Furthermore, since art critics tend to look askance on mass exhibitions, the desired reputational benefit will probably not materialize.

I went up to the gallery yesterday as instructed during the installation windowmy piece is mainly circulating virtually, but I wanted to see if the show was going to be the kind of zoo I figured it for. My initial plan was to arrive early, but because of a morning meeting I ended up arriving around 2 pm. At that point the parking lot at Bergamot Station, where Shoshana Wayne Gallery is located, was filled to capacity and the line of people waiting to check in with the gallery staff was 150 long, by my count. The word was that there had been an even bigger mob in the morning. I was really curious now and joined the line. It took a little under an hour to reach the check-in desk, at which point I was given artist number 1,227 and directed to a space in the F1 section of Bergamot Station.

"Chain Letter" show 2011, Shoshana Wayne Gallery

"Chain Letter" show 2011, Shoshana Wayne Gallery

When I got there, I found the room was already filled almost literally to overflowing with artworks large and small (mostly small).  Works were packed so closely together that there was no longer any access to the pieces in the corners, and the open floor space was shrinking steadily. Artists of all ages and many styles milled about cheerfully, wedging their works into the small patches of remaining space.

The general arrangement had gone far beyond salon style; the effect was something between an attic, a junkshop, and a dump. It felt like a place where art came to die. It was one of the saddest art environments I’ve ever been in; it hardly seemed possible that art could be made to seem less valued or more abject without actually taking it out and throwing it in the trash. And even that might read as a clean gesture; to create an inadvertent art slag heap within the confines of the gallery system just struck me as a travesty and an insult.

And I’m still wondering what the point of this show could have been. If it was to give less known artists a viewing within the name-gallery system, it wasn’t well thought out since not only is it hard to ‘see’ individual works in the chaos of these rooms but everything looks debased. If it’s to gain some revenue through sales, it might work—I’m guessing there might be some ‘friends of the artists’ type sales to be made here. That probably counts as a win for the gallery, but whether it counts as a success for the artist may depend on whether they tally all their costs. If it’s to gain some rep for the gallery and/or Bergamot Station as a publicly minded entity, it might just work. If it’s to create an event that the curators can maybe pitch as relational art, or a slow flash mob, or a power shift from gallery to artist—well, whichever way you slice it, the reality on the ground doesn’t add up. If it’s to hold the summer’s most well-attended art party, I’m guessing it may be a success—if even a fraction of the thousands of artists come with their friends to the opening tonight, it’ll be quite a blast. Ultimately it seems likely that the main thing most artists will get out of this event is a line item on their art resume.

And that’s  just wrong.

Edit, 7-27-11: It occurred to me that this might work more interestingly as a flea market, perhaps within an existing venue. Bring on the broad demographics, the open haggling, the spirit of ‘what can I do with that?’ that goes along with a flea market.

Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , , |

found art

I was talking to a friend the other day about the degree to which expectations rule what can be ‘seen’, and I was reminded of a project I proposed in 1991 that never got off the ground. I had come across a flyer for a juried exhibition entitled “Found Object as Art” with this extremely vague call for entries:

Open to all living artists working in assemblage of found objects. Work may be wall-hung, free-standing, or mounted on the artists’ [sic] own pedestal. We have a few pedestals if needed.

And I started thinking about the kinds of things that typically pass as found art. Thrift-store paintings. Bird’s nests and driftwood sculpture. Ancestor photos, childhood mementos, broken toys. Map fragments and cryptic hand-written notes. Architectural remnants. Machine parts and plastic souvenirs. Most of all, assemblages of the above. I wanted to propose something different, and I was struck by how the call typologized art as wall-hung, free-standing, or pedestal-mounted. This led to a train of thought about the metaphor of ‘putting something on a pedestal’, and about how things can be both literal and metaphorical, and about what qualifies as an object in the first place, let alone a found one.

So I sent in the following proposal, which was cryptic in part because it had to fit on a 3×5-inch card:

"Found Object"

"Found Object", 1991, side view

Title: Robert Allen
Medium: Biological materials
Dimensions: 76″ h x 22″ w x 9″ d
Price: NFS

This self-assembled Found Object is well-hung, free-standing, and permanently mounted on a pedestal (the artist put this Found Object on a pedestal during their courtship; no other pedestal is required). For purposes of display, this may be treated as a Found Love Object and/or a Found Sex Object. This Found Object can easily pass through a 3′ x 6’8″ door [this was a requirement of the call for entries], either on own initiative or following a polite request.

Some weeks later my entry form came back stamped WORK NOT ACCEPTED.

Although the idea still seems perfectly sound to me, I see in retrospect that I may have sabotaged the proposal with such a tongue-in-cheek write-up—it made it easy to dismiss the proposal as a prank rather than a piece of conceptual found art. Robert and I were actually prepared to work with the curator on important matters like whether Robert would need to be completely stationary, whether he would speak, and how long each day he would participate in the exhibition, since I wasn’t proposing this as an ordeal project à la Marina Abramowicz. These kinds of things should have been included in the proposal to show that I was serious about my entry. Well, semi-serious, anyway. As it happened, I was right in the midst of preparations to move from California to Germany for what turned into a stay of several years, so I’m sure I was ambivalent about the prospect of participating in this show at the same time.

George Herms, "Aries"

George Herms, "Aries", 1965

That said, I still think the proposal wouldn’t have flown even with a different write-up. An obvious step to take with juried shows is to investigate the curator’s own work to find out where his or her biases lie. However, I doubt I would have looked up the curator’s work at the time—this was two years before the first graphical web browser was introduced, when such an information search would have required a trip to the library and more time than I was probably prepared to invest in the proposal.

When I did google the curator, George Herms, years later, I discovered that he works solidly within the mainstream of found art, and especially with the subtype that pays homage to the boxes of Joseph Cornell. I may be wronging him, but it does seem likely that he would have felt my living found art was too much of a stretch no matter how I phrased my proposal.

Perhaps I can reconfigure this proposal for some future show on Bio-Art…

Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , |