Art, Work, Power

Just last month I made the move that many young artists make.  I left Chicago for New York City in what must seem like horribly bad timing given the many warnings from friends being laid off and rents still reflecting the inflated real estate market.  I’ve heard more than one story of labor going unpaid simply because businesses that normally profit from the production, installation, or discourse of art don’t have the cash flow they once did.  This, to get on the high horse momentarily, is an injustice that occurs simply because it is allowed.  In short, freelance labor has no weight to throw around, unlike many of the other overhead costs in the arts.  In addition, as one fellow freelancer put it, we are the fat that gets trimmed.

With this in mind, I made the move to New York knowing that I might get a little leaner.  My one advantage has been my status as an MFA student at Bard College during the summer, which comes with a supportive community that has afforded me opportunities in freelance art handling, artist assisting and the like.  These specific experiences will serve as source material for my writing to come, but hopefully not for ringing endorsements or rigorous critiques.  Over the next two weeks, I will speak from where I stand.

"Undergraduate Art Student/ Darkroom Assistant (American), ECH, Irvine, California, July 18, 2008," Epson Ultrachrome K3 Ink jet print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, 35 3/4 x 25 3/4 in, 2009. Courtesy of Wallspace GalleryWide-format Inkjet Printer (Epson), Los Angeles, California, July 25, 2008, Epson Ultrachrome K3 Ink jet print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, 35 3/4 x 25 3/4 in, 2009. Courtesy of WallspaceWalead Beshty, "Artist (American), KFH, Los Angeles, California, February 8, 2009," Epson Ultrachrome K3 Ink jet print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, 35 3/4 x 25 3/4 in, 2009. Courtesy of Wallspace.

Just a couple weeks ago I stood here, in front of Walead Beshty’s photographs at Wallspace in Chelsea.  Offered a day of work to help install, I gladly moved towering photographic abstractions from one wall to the other as the artist and gallery directors worked out the systematic hanging of the show.  This system, as it turned out, was absurdly over-determined — which I gather was the point — evidenced by the strange hanging of one work off the edge of the wall.

Installation view: Walead Beshty Popular Mechanics.  Courtesy of Wallspace.

Production and process is grounded not only by the abstractions — photograms to be accurate — but also by the portraits of people, places, and machines involved in Beshty’s artistic output.  Production is mimicked as both subject and object, while the photograph hovers between that which is and that which represents.  As we paused during the installation process, Walead took a photo of me holding a rolled-up print.

Alienated by this labor as well as the photographic process, I worked the rest of the week for the Armory Show, which stormed through the city with little collateral damage.  My feelings have always been that this art fair gets the attention it deserves, but it’s worth a mention for its ability to spark conversation about the state of the art world and the economy around it.  This year it was the query: Is the economic bust “good for art” (whatever that means)?

Although in no need of attention, I found more at stake across town at the otherworldly Gagosian.   This uptown affair might have gone under my radar had I not been hooked-up with a couple of days assisting the artist, Richard Phillips.  At the time, his upcoming show at the most coveted gallery in New York was still hanging in his Chelsea studio, and that is where I first came to know his images.

Richard Phillips, "New Museum," Oil on canvas, 2009. Courtesy of Gagosian

Culled from sources of power and desire,  his paintings might be easily dismissed as fashionably misogynist, if not for their sex appeal then for their welcoming at Gagosian uptown.  A smiling nude woman bends over and poses in front of a backdrop that advertises The Kitchen; a portrait of two Bowery bums titled “New Musem” delivers quite simply a history of the art world’s tie to real estate and class divides; A marine looks straight out of the image with the Northern European landscape behind him, but in another image Castro is drawn on the stomach of a model who holds a cigar to his drawn lips.  These combinations are in themselves contradictory, complicated, and therefore a risk, but it is not just in the images that Phillips plays his hand.  Phillips appears not to shy away from his own complicity in the power of the culture industry. Few young artists have yet to accept that role when they blindly scramble for any gallery that will have them.

Balancing between cynicism and deference towards the powers that be, I’ll conclude with a conversation from Bettina Funcke’s catalog essay for Richard Phillips’s show titled “New Museum” (written upside-down):

“I like his work.”

“It’s weird, his painting.”

“It’s mysterious. I don’t understand it, and that’s why I like it… and I can see why people put all kinds of theory on it.”

“Do you think he needs to be a good painter to paint these images, I mean, in the sense of craft? It takes a long time, he says.”

“It’s all about if he achieves something…”

“Do you think he’s good?”


“As a painter, I think he’s better than Jeff Koons. Not as an artist… But if you only compare Koons’ paintings and his, he’s better.”

“He’s very good.”

“He’s so weird. I like him.”

“There is no soft there… I mean, in the work.”

“But he’s soft as a person, especially for a successful man.”

“But probably not with everybody…”

“The titles are important.”

“He’s pretty reliant on the word.”

“He’s really into power.”

“He often shows images of subjugation. Or these other images of power, from the other direction.”

“These are the questions.”