Friday, January 16, 2015

At the Columbus Museum of Art, Artists Making Money.

In——We Trust: Art and Money is a broad and often amusing show at the Columbus Museum of Art, continuing through February. How does a curator focus a show anchored by two words with such culturally potent and complex meanings? Art? Money? Tyler McCann, Columbus's new associate curator for contemporary art, offers us a show of almost bewildering inclusiveness. Because only a few images from the show are available, I'll print them in this review to give the reader an idea of the variety of work displayed. I want to focus, though, on the theme I was most interested in, which is artists and how their practices relate to commerce.
Paul Ramírez Jonas, We Make Change, 2008 (detail).
 Penny press machine, oak, plexiglass, one penny from each year
 minted from 1909–2008. Photography: Paul Ramírez Jonas.

 Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York.

In the show's opening position is Andy Warhol's wonderful little painting of both sides of a two-dollar bill, lent by the Dayton  Art Institute. Warhol made it in response to the exhortation to paint what he liked. That would be money, wouldn't it? Warhol was a master draftsman, and there's a pencil drawing of $5 banknotes that communicates the controlled emotion one feels in master drawings of the nude. The wonderful thing about his money portraits  is that they are both careful in their representation and fresh in their expressiveness: His self-awareness is clear, but there's also an innocence too that asks to be taken seriously.

Why shouldn't the artist want to make money? Everyone else does. Are his skill and his creativity in opposition to a goal shared by every normal person in society? Must he only represent money? Who decides that he is above the rest of society?

Cildo Meireles, Zero-Dollar Bill, 1978/2013. Image courtesy the artist. 
Photo copyright Pat Kilgore.
Sarah Cain, in a charming selections from a work named "$ forty three," 2012, shows several individually framed dollar bills over which she has painted brilliantly colored geometrical designs that favor equilateral triangles. We come to understand the triangles as pyramids when close inspection demonstrates that on some of the bills she has not painted over the currency's pyramid topped by the glowing eye. Aside from the suggestion in her title, this is the only detail that reveals the fact that she has actually painted on legal tender. 

Cain paints so comprehensively that sometimes only the tiny glowing eye itself peeks through. It is then the merest speck in the field of color; it's easy to overlook entirely. 

On a one-dollar bill, the motto inscribed above the configuration of the pyramid and beaming eye is "Annuit Coeptis," roughly, "providence/god shines on our undertakings." We historically understand "our" to be the republic's. 

Cain removes the providential eye from its monetary setting and places it in a field of exotic color and design. As such, it becomes the reverse of an evil eye talisman. The eye of god shines out with a hopeful message: Prosperity for the artist? Increased creative potency? It seems that Cain re-values money and condenses its power to a capacity that inspires and bring good things to pass.
Superflex, Bankrupt Banks, 2008 – present, banners:
paint on fabric, 79 x 79 inches; panels: vinyl on painted MDF,
79 x 39.5 inches, Coppel Collection, photo courtesy Nils Staerk
 and Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo.

On the theme of artists and money, I found the most poignant and amusing works to be two from Caleb Larsen. Fortunately both of these are pictured with captions on his website, linked above. Do look them up.

"$10,000 Sculpture in Progress" a modest piece from 2009, is a dollar-bill acceptor set into the wall. It's just like the one on a Coca-Cola dispenser or candy machine, covered with a sticker noting that it accepts "$1 & $5." The direction to Insert bill Here is illustrated with a hand holding a dollar bill in the proper position. The gallery note provided by Larsen suggests that when $10,000 is collected, then he will produce the work. What could be clearer about the connection between art and money? 

Meschac GABA, Bankivi: Housing Bank, 2014,
 Wood, decommissioned Central African (CFA)
franc banknotes, plexiglas, assorted coins 
The acceptor works, by the way. I made a donation, which it sucked right up. Being myself the recipient of largesse, I'll donate to any artist who asks. For all I know, he's on this third project by now. More power to him. But I feel confident that many react to this as to a scam: "If he's got work in the museum, he's not hurting!" Oh, if only. This work is another way of measuring public perceptions of how art is financed. It measures our illusions, assumptions, and prejudices about who artists are—tricksters? malingerers? I would love to see a follow up to this piece. Did museum goers react to it as to a piece of rhetoric? Or as a statement from a working artist?

Next to "$10,000 Sculpture in Progess" hangs a framed document, letter-press printed on fine paper, also by Larson, titled "The financial footprint of the artistic practice," 2009. This is its text: "On this date the undersigned Collector agrees to transfer the total credit card debt the artist Caleb Larsen has incurred as a result of maintaining his artistic practice.//The balance of $—————will be transferred from the artist's credit card account to that of the Collector." Lines for the signatures of Collector and Artist and the date follow.

Funny? Yes. Incisive? Yes again. Can the Collector be a patron? Can people invest in the artist's freedom to create, or only in the commodity of the artwork? Who appreciates the artist as a worker who must not only have food on the table, but space and the time for ideas to develop over uncluttered time? 

Larson implicitly asks where we think the art works come from? And the answer is not only from materials and a studio, as the IRS would have it. It's from a secure and nurtured person, a thinker and a worker secure in the value not only of great works, but of the experiments, essays, and time, time, time it takes to midwife them. One big question lingers in this work, though. It's not only framed, but under glass. No one can take the document and sign it, as one can contribute through the machine. Does Larsen have low expectations? He's already found his patron? Maybe Collectors want to think it over and have their attorneys add a few clauses?

 William E. Jones, Color Coordinated Currency (Green), 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. Photo Brian Forrest. 

No comments:

Post a Comment