ART AT BAY Best of 2013: Top 5 Things I Didn’t Care About in 2013

Epson_QX10_Sep1983I realize, now that I’ve actually written this article, that I’ve basically made a list of things that don’t deserve to be on an end-of-year list and the effort on a whole may be counterproductive.  But it ends here.  Though I personally lost interest in these five topics over the course of 2013, they nevertheless seemed to continually fetch art news headlines and even found their way onto my own Twitter/Facebook feed (I’m powerless against reposting this stuff.)  Thus, I’m getting it out now and leaving it here in 2013.

5.  Art Review’s Power 100

Art Review Magazine annually produces the Power 100, “a ranked list of the contemporary artworld’s most powerful figures.”  With this year’s omission of any art writers and critics, I thought I could muster some passion over this one.  I couldn’t.  Like many people, I gave it shot and still don’t really care about the list.  In the end, perhaps the worst thing for the Power 100 isn’t for people to disagree with it, but for no one to pay attention.

In some sense the list may be entirely accurate.  However, it seems to often come across as a cheat sheet of people to whom you should suck up.  In a field especially preoccupied with power dynamics, post-colonialism, race politics, and gender politics a list of the “artworld’s most powerful figures” seems like a horrible idea.  I suspect many give it attention because of its list and ranking format (who can resist a good list? Hence the format of this series).  Maybe the ranking’s name should be more specific: “The Power 100 for Dealers and Collectors”.  Personally, I’d rather see a list of people making the best most exciting contributions to contemporary art.

4.  Banksy’s New York Residency

“Better Out Than In”, Street Artist Banksy’s month-long New York City “residency”, took place this past October.  For the duration of the month, Banksy would create a street art installation and announce it on his website the next day.  Despite the hefty press coverage (you know it’s serious when CNN calls in Jerry Saltz to explain the matter), my attention level hardly rose above ‘bored’.

Banksy’s work invests itself with little more than empty wit.  Satisfied with good intentions and little forethought, his street art pieces are conceptual one-liners.  They are funny or interesting at first but offer little beyond an initial reaction.  There is a lot of street art with substantial thought and concept behind it (e.g. check out the work of Mata Ruda) – Banksy’s isn’t it.  For all of the finger-poking at art-world-economics, Banksy seems to ignore the fact that his work is worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.  He essentially leaves a fortune in public and politely excuses himself from the inevitable feeding frenzy – it’s either naive or irresponsible.  This doesn’t make me angry as much as it informs me that Banksy is not an artist worth taking seriously.

3.  ArtPrize

ArtPrize is a city-wide art fair held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The fair is a giant competition with two main prizes: a popular prize and a critical one.  It’s easy to foresee what kind of art typically wins the popular vote prize: like politics, it’s hardly ever the most deserving and almost always the easiest on the sensibilities.  The juried prize feels like an afterthought, a last-ditch effort at salvaging credibility.  Indeed, the prize monies seem to reflect this.  The total juried prize is less than half the size of the total popular prize. Maybe ArtPrize condones a short-attention-span-coddling sort of art.  It definitely makes for a boring fair dominated by gimmick and kitsch.

2.  Celebrity Art

2013 seems to heretofore seen more celebrities involved with art more than any other year.  I’m not blanketly condemning celebrities practicing in fine art.  But a rapper rapping at a gallery?  A movie star sleeping at the MoMA?!  I don’t call my day job performance art.  It’s a sad day when one can accurately call James Franco the hardest working celebrity in art.

I suppose the point is that all of this art is interesting because these “artists” are famous.  However, their fame is minimally to never addressed in the work.  Thus, these “pieces” are robbed of the very little they had going for it in the first place.  It’s a waste of time, attention, and exhibition space; it’s a regression in fame and class; it’s boring.  Please, celebrities: really give art the ol’ college try or just stick to your field of entertainment.

1. Art Auctions

Despite all of the price tag record-setting, self-congratulatory press releases, and art news headlines, 2013 is the year I stopped caring about high-end art auctions.  I’m not saying this out of some anti-capitalist sentiment.  Not entirely.  Sales for a single work of art reaching into the tens and even hundreds of millions is meaningless to a middle class person like me.  My daily life provides me with absolutely no points of reference that shed light on what $142.4 Million dollars means.  Saying that amount is about the same as 783 of my mortgages doesn’t help very much.

Further, when it comes to art auctions the conversation is typically limited to topics such as ‘who is purchasing the piece?’, ‘how much are they paying for it?’, and ‘where is the piece going?’  These may possibly be the most boring and trivial aspects of a work of art.  I’m also concerned that continuing to tout these absurdly high auction earnings only ensures that the art world will be the first against the wall in the upcoming homeless revolution.

ART AT BAY Best of 2013: Top 5 Things I Didn’t Care About in 2013

Art@Bay at Sarasota Visual Art – Like Water, Plain Yet Potent

Flush the toilet, wash down a pill, take a bath, drive through the rain, swig a bottle of Dasani, drown.  Despite its ubiquitous nature (or perhaps because of it) water makes for incredibly potent symbolism – a potency that is not lost on artist Michelle Fader.  As a theme, water flows through Michelle Fader’s solo exhibit, Toward Evening, at the USF Centre Gallery.

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Art@Bay at Sarasota Visual Art – Like Water, Plain Yet Potent

Kirk Ke Wang Serves Up an Impressive Installation

We’re not scientists.  We’re not here to solve problems.  Kirk Ke Wang was referring to artists when he said this, his hand resting on the head of a toy animal at the business end of a noose.  Like the issues it addresses, his installation, Last Meal, at St. Petersburg’s Salt Creek Artworks is much more complex and ambiguous than it may first appear.

Two groups of 100 toy animals hang from nooses in neat rows and columns throughout the gallery.  I found it interesting that my first impression of the scene was that of a mass execution, though it soon became clear it represents a mass suicide – an integral difference.  Multicolored lights flick on and off responding to movement and creating sinister shadows.  The idea of the circumstances that would lead to an animal’s self-annihilation is frightening and similarly Wang’s work exudes hopelessness.  The message these “animals” are communicating by their death is undoubtedly a grim one.

Countering the morbidity (or perhaps emphasizing it, depending on your reading) is the fact the toy animals are clearly not real animals but rather felt or fleece blankets with cartoonish heads attached and a large letter sewn on each animal.  The letters on the two groups of animals correspond to two word search puzzles that are distributed at the entrance to the gallery.  One puzzle features words such as “delicious”, “nutrition”, and “tender” and the other words like “bloody”, “painful”, and “rancid”.  The letters of each puzzle correspond to the two groups of hung animals, transforming the “massacre” into a kind of game.

At the center of the installation, in between the two groups of animals, is a low platform that resembles a dinner table covered with ceramic wontons in a spiral formation.  A small video monitor displaying the inside of a boiling pot is embedded in the platform at the center of the wontons.  Ceramic wontons on a beach are projected onto a screen in front of the platform.  As the tide comes in, the water soaks the wontons and returns to the sea red, resembling blood.

As I watched a wave cover the rows of dumplings and withdraw as bloody water, I overheard Wang explain that wontons were often considered a migrant’s food.  The wontons connect conceptually with the hanging animals – both food sources portrayed as somehow synthetic, hyper-standardized and imbued with violence from its conception.  Wang expertly uses common imagery to start a dialogue but wisely refrains from dominating the conversation.

With a few familiar images he conjures heavy issues such as food and eating, sustainability, violence, labor, natural resources, death.  Last Meal reveals little by way of opinion.  Actually, for nearly every perceptible opinion, Wang manages to present a converse opinion.  In this way Wang was right: the work doesn’t solve any problems.  It barely even mentions them.  However, it doesn’t merely inspire beard-scratching-faux contemplation.  Last Meal requires a walk through the gallery, physical engagement, conversation.  Artists aren’t scientists.  Artists are at the front starting the dialogue in the first place.  And they’re in back constantly pushing it forward.

Aside

Your Dirty Mind – Neil Bender: Purple Nurple

(left) Looks Like, oil and acrylic on canvas, 49" x 85 ", 2009-10 (right) A Habitable Ether, oil on canvas, 40" x 50", 2011-12

Nipples, thighs, orifices of sorts – visually, Neil Bender‘s current exhibit of paintings at Tempus Projects is not unlike scrambled pay-per-view.  Like most good jokes, though, behind the suggestive content and playful exhibit title, Purple Nurple is much more sober.

It can’t be denied: Bender’s work is overtly sexual.  While content-wise the sweaty tangle of body parts in most of the paintings of Purple Nurple may resemble an orgy, the paintings resemble a collage compositionally.  In fact, one of Bender’s pieces featured in the show is actually a proper  cut-and-paste collage.  In this way Bender isn’t creating his sexual imagery as much as he’s mediating sexual imagery we’re already familiar with.  Perhaps that’s why his work can be so squirm-worthy at times.

There is another reason I found the work in Purple Nurple so affectingCreative Loafing‘s Megan Voeller mentioned in a past review of Bender’s work that “Rather than re-inscribing the objectification of participants (most often women) found in mainstream porn, … [Bender] is playful and exploratory in a way that reflects the current, lively discourse on gender and sexuality”. Power relations in porn are generally pretty obvious. They’re much more murky with Bender’s faceless bodies, leaving it ambiguous as to who exactly is being objectified. In a weird way it feels like the collar-pulling viewer fills that role.

The paintings of Purple Nurple are also playful with the assumptions we make in “reading” the paintings (and by extension the images we consume in general).  The centerpiece of the show, a large 88 x 120 in. painting, also makes use of this hyper-sexual imagery.  A quilt-like pattern recalls a bed mattress or fish net stockings.  Fleshy masses twist with outfit accessories, nipples with belt buckles.  It’s easy to guess what may be going on in this scene, but difficult to reconcile it with the painting’s title, My Daughter’s Overturned Bedroom.  Bender plays the opposite game in paintings with titles such as Pony You Up and Raw.  Where we presume perversity is upon closer inspection banality.  Don’t blame Neil, you were the one thinking it.

Neil Bender’s work provokes with an immediacy that painting doesn’t often allow.  In a medium that has an increasingly difficult struggle to find relevancy, the work in Purple Nurple is indecently appropriate.

My Daughter's Overturned Bedroom, oil on canvas, 88" x 120", 2011-12

Word is there will be a closing reception on March 2nd – keep an eye on Tempus Projects’ Facebook page.

Your Dirty Mind – Neil Bender: Purple Nurple