Monday, November 18, 2013

Regionalism, Commodification, and the Aesthetics of Use

Hello everyone--sorry for the infrequency of posts--I have no excuse other than exploring other pursuits (and successfully completing them).  Writing time is at a premium these days.  I did, however, participate in a really great conference and panel this weekend at the Society for Utopian Studies Annual Conference in Charleston, South Carolina.  I wanted to publish the transcript for everyone, and it follows.  The panel was called Utopia, Place, and Image and also included a talk by Dawn Roe of Rollins College and Erik Waterkotte of University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and some really interesting questions and discussions came from the panel, even though we were, in some ways, the oddballs at the conference as visual artists.  In tandem with the panel, Erik oversaw and printed three different prints (each in an addition of 50) which were distributed to people attending the panel.  The prints, printed on old survey maps, incorporated text and images from the three of us, and turned out quite stunning!  I'm also including a video that Erik shot to document the narrative structure of the prints, down below the transcript.  I did also show examples of my work along with this presentation, but it was supplementary and I think the text is meaningful without the images--and, if you are looking at this--more than likely know how to navigate your web portal display to my website with infinitely more images--feel free to read this text on one web portal display and cycle through images from the website on another to recreate this affect.  

As a studio artist, I've thought a lot about Grant Wood’s 1935 book Revolt Against the City and developed some ideas that arise with contemporary art. After considering it in terms of my own studio practice, of which I'll show many different examples of through the presentation, Wood's idea of place has been an important aspect of my visual art making and research.  Imbedded within this is my relationship to the art market and art's usefulness to a larger part of society. 

I would not necessarily consider myself a Regionalist for a number of reasons, but it bears stating the concept of Regionalism in Wood's own words for the sake of this presentation.  And I quote:

"Let me state the basic idea of the regional movement.  Each section has a personality of its own, in physiography, industry, and psychology.  Thinking painters and writers who have passed their formative years in these regions, will, by care-taking analysis, work out and interpret in their productions these varying personalities.  When the different regions develop characteristics of their own, they will come into competition with each other; and out of this competition a rich American culture will grow." (Wood)

I do see my own work as referencing the geographic, social, cultural, and cosmologic location as the subject matter for my work—be it rural culture in general, or more specifically Appalachia (where my father is from) or Midwestern culture.  Regionalism, as it has manifested in my education of the history of art, is somewhere oddly situated between an ideology of a group of artists working during the Great Depression and an aesthetic and formal tradition of realist painting of rural culture.  I see my work more in line with Wood's attention to his surroundings observing culture but do not take any visual reference from the romantic realist paintings of Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, or other Regionalists.    

Grant Wood’s book interested me, though, as its utopic hints at an alternative to what has now manifested as the art market.  Some of Wood’s ideas talk about an expansion of programs like the PWA and regional schools of art run by the government.  He saw the possibility with regionally developed art as making the nation a stronger cultural player, in the sense that when different regions have art programs they will likely compete with one another, and the success and product of each of those regional programs will continually grow and get better with competition.  In other sections of the book, Wood discusses the economic deterioration of the Depression as being an "opportunity" for demonstration of the "artistic possibilities" of the provincial Midwest. 

While there are community supported art programs, non-profits, and even charter schools specializing in arts education, the predominant popular view of art is dominated by the art market, separating those artists that are a part of it from the more localized agents of contemporary art and practicing artists.  It is not out of the question for a “local artist” to become famous and nationally or internationally recognized in some form, but the majority of your local artists are stuck between establishing meaningful representation on a local level and making the means to live as an artist.   

Just Wednesday Roberta Smith published an article in the New York Times about the record-setting sale of a Francis Bacon triptych from 1969 at auction for $142 million dollars, topping 2012’s auction record of $119 million for Munch’s The Scream.  How does one resolve this in terms of Wood’s call for the flourishing of local art practices?  I do not believe that it can be resolved.  And what has transpired since Wood's book seems even bleaker.  Smith states:

Auctions have become the leading indicator of ultra-conspicuous consumption, pieces of public, male-dominated theater in which collectors, art dealers and auction houses flex their monetary clout, mostly for one another. The spectacle of watching these privileged few (mostly hedge fund managers and investment-hungry consortiums, it seems) tossing around huge amounts of money has become a rarefied spectator sport. These events are painful to watch yet impossible to ignore and deeply alienating if you actually love art for its own sake.

More than ever, the glittery auction-house/blue-chip gallery sphere is spinning out of control far above the regular workaday sphere where artists, dealers and everyone else struggle to get by. It is a kind of fiction that has almost nothing to do with anything real — not new art, museums or historical importance. It is becoming almost as irrelevant as the work, reputation and market of the kitsch painter Thomas Kinkade” (Smith)

I want to state critically that Smith's writing reaffirms her own criticism simply by the vast majority of the work she chooses to write about:  there is art for its own sake, it just won’t be shown in commercial galleries, especially not in New York.  The largest part of Smith's writing involves contemporary art in museums and galleries in New York.  If there are these mythic lovers of art for its own sake it is incredibly hard to find amidst all of the grime of the art market.  Galleries are businesses, and relatively lucrative generators of revenue, and taste is determined by what they are profiting from.  Of course there are a few exceptions--predominantly, I would argue, within the non-profit organizations and smaller artist run spaces throughout the art world--but their budget relies on donations and is often emulating aspects of the artwork involved in the art market. 

Grant Wood, then, is not off base to write about the possibilities of visual art after financial ruin.  The art market saw its own burst in the late 80's--and I still constantly hear comments about how difficult the market is for my friends involved in galleries and other for-profit ventures.  Indeed in the New York Times article written by Smith about the Bacon painting quotes Christie's Auction House curator for postwar and contemporary art Brett Gorvy as saying "This isn't a bubble--it’s the beginning of something new," (Smith) inferring that auction prices are going to continue to rise (and the market is going to continue to be inflated).  After the record Bacon sale, I came upon a photo essay in the Wall Street Journal written by Geoff Foster comparing, dollar for dollar, an artwork sold at Christie's recent auction to a baseball player's multiyear contract for a professional baseball team.  Roughly 1% of the population has the money to participate in the skyrocketing art auctions or donate money to the museums to buy and exhibit artwork; few regions can see a use for art in its contemporary manifestation of an inflated market commodity.  And it is exactly a commodity--look at Detroit's bankruptcy and the rationale to sell DIA's collection.  I may be verging on territory here that I have little theoretical experience with; I’m no economist, but can only talk from my direct experiences with the market. 

To give some context with my situation, I’ve made around $5,000 from sales of artwork since 2001, approximately seven tenths of a percent of what the Bacon painting sold for.  I’m not asking for pity nor am I claiming starving artist status.  I am productive and have a healthy studio practice without monetary gain.  I bring all of this up because my view is that the art market, a hulking locomotive I can't help but try to understand, is simply unsustainable and benefits a microscopic portion of the population.  I don't anticipate the art market going away anytime soon, but I am building towards an idea that we need an alternative for the betterment of art in society, for artists and the public alike.     

Now there are little revolts everywhere, one that most people might be familiar with is the recent Residency on the Streets of New York by the “street artist” Banksy—but Banksy’s work is commodified as quickly as someone can put plexiglass on it.  What is happening with these revolts, though, in a profession so often interested in a false sense of the avante garde, is that galleries and the market are commodifying things beyond fine art.  I’m not trying to make a qualitative statement of Banksy, but simply state the fact that he (and Jeff Koons, Sherri Levine, Andy Warhol, and even Marcel Broodthaers before him) have attempted to discount and discredit the art market by exploiting it, but the machine keeps going and increasing their prices.  While Banksy is also making interesting statements about authorship, particularly with his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, he is still a part of the money generating segments of the art world.    

While this is neither my subject matter nor my object matter, the art market is an aspect of making contemporary art that is inescapable.  Smith would have us on a relentless search for art for its own sake—but this has traditionally been applied to works that only refer to other works of art, and have little to do with research—both visual and theoretical—and its application in a studio practice. 

As an artist I have started thinking about materials and how they fit into this commodification of artwork.  Part of my practice involves setting up situations that are then documented with a camera—in some ways, though, I don’t even consider these photographs, but pure documentation of something that was arranged in my studio and is now gone.  I occasionally use software to double the image, or create a visually abnormal image.  My materials are often basic building supplies, scraps of paper and wood, and plants harvested from my yard.  Most of my installations are for a specific location and only exist for a short period of time in reality, and then in photographed documentation.  Recent pieces have been as informal as painting on a downed branches and leaning them against a fence, arranging construction supplies on a log, or spray painting weeds that I pull from our garden--not many curators or collectors are willing to come to Iowa, let alone to see what some crazy guy is doing in his yard.   

I am trained as a painter and still hold dear the tradition of abstract painting—but the goal of my practice, to a certain extent, is to make paintings based in visual and theoretical research that is not determined by the art market.  This aim is a bit premature in the sense that I am just now, in my career, working with an art consultant and have never worked (or been offered to work with) a gallery; but part of the mission of my studio practice is to continue to make work that resists the commodification that the art market relies on so heavily to determine the value and use of art.  I am not exactly sure what my limits are or where I would draw the line, but my parameters are to prioritize working with individuals and organizations that have motives beyond monetary gain.    

This last year I was selected for two large-scale exhibitions that were also site-specific in the sense that they will probably never manifest themselves again in another venue.  The Soothsayer was my first exhibition in a building of artists studios called Box 13 in Houston, Texas.  I drove some of the materials down to Houston to install, but I also spent time around the gallery, in a lower Middle class neighborhood where the light rail will go through after its construction in 2016, collecting pieces, scraps, plants, and other objects within a few blocks radius to make these installations.  This amalgam of components from my yard and the area of Houston around the gallery created an interesting dialogue between two places.  In the end, I'm not sure that anyone could tell you exactly which parts where from where, adding to the complexity of common statements like "where I am from" and "where this is."    

My most recent exhibition was at DEMO Project, one of two contemporary art spaces in Springfield, Illinois.  DEMO, as its name implies, is a small bungalow owned by the Springfield Art Association slated for destruction in three years so that the SAA can build a new building in a working class neighborhood just north of downtown. Run by young and energetic artists and recent graduates from University of Illinois at Springfield, the gallery is temporary but an incredible contribution to a community that has not prioritized contemporary art spaces.  I was happy to be offered the exhibition purely for the location of the house, history of the architecture (not unlike thousands of other bungalows built in the 40’s in the Midwest), and the foreseeable end to it as a structure.  Evensong 15 (caudex) took the form of a branching tree emanating from the fireplace and stretched throughout the entire gallery/room.  Though my work is rooted in abstraction, my research deals with our relationship to place and how this manifests itself in plants, building materials, and a connection to the physiography of my location, including how all of these relate to deterioration and the break down of materials.  The ephemeral nature of materials (and art galleries, in this sense) is incredibly important to my work and thinking.  

To conclude, I believe that to truly support the visual arts and contemporary art making practice we need to revisit it's usefulness in society.  What seems to be the most common answer to these problems (created in part by the art market) is buying work from local artists, and this is partially true.  Just like with food, buying locally has its advantages.  I believe there are ways to be advocates without having to spend money, too—for one, we can all actively participate in exhibitions, critically looking and thinking about the art that is presented.  Read press about contemporary art and take advantage of the vast networks of alternative art venues and publications--some of the most exciting things in contemporary art are insensitive and are born out of absence or necessity.  Dealing directly with artists is a good method of interaction with their studio practice and their research.  While some artists are less willing to talk about their work with any depth, most artists do have something to communicate about their work, whether they are comfortable with it or not.   

Grant Wood states, in regards to his proposed Government art schools throughout sections of the country, that:

"…Annual exhibits of the work of schools of this character would arouse general interest and greatly enlarge our American art public.  A local pride would be excited that might rival that which even hard-headed business men feel for home football teams and such enterprises.  There is nothing ridiculous about such support; it would be only a by-product of a form of public art education which, when extended over a long period of time would make us a great art-loving nation." (Wood)  

To think of contemporary art on equal footing as high school or collegiate football is pretty far fetched, but for the possibility of a broader acceptance of art in the United States, on a regional level, I believe we need as dramatic of a shift away from the art market as possible towards a more sustainable relationship between artists and society, prioritizing thinking and making over the commodification of its product.      

Grant Wood, Revolt Agains the City, Clio Press, Iowa City, Iowa.  1935
Roberta Smith, "Art is Hard to See Through the Clutter of Drawing Signs" New York Times, 11/13/2013

Click Here to see the video of the prints via Facebook.