Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Frieze Burn (D.I.Y Gallery Seeks D.I.Y. Critics)

SOLD: $750,000 
(Hauser & Wirth)
This past Wednesday the news that Donald Trump's last rival in the Republican primary had dropped out of the race caused the Dow to drop nearly 100 points. Suffice to say that Wall Street is ill at ease with the prospect of a Trump presidency. Wednesday night also happened to be the VIP gala for New York's Frieze Fair, one of the contemporary art market's most anticipated events. Since the fortunes of most invested in blue chip art are also tied up in the stock market, that translated to a less than bullish night at Randall's Island Park in Manhattan's East River.

Which is not to say that there were no sales. In fact, Paul McCarthy’s SC Western Red River, Red (2016), the first work in a new series entitled “Stagecoach,” sold for $750,000.

I want you take a moment and wrap your head around that.

It's silicone, measuring 52 × 32 × 37 in. (132.1 × 81.3 × 94 cm). It is from an edition of 3 with 2 additional artist proofs, so it's not even a unique piece, produced earlier this year and it sold for three-quarters of a million dollars this past weekend.

Paul McCarthy is recognized for his provocative, some would say tasteless, performances, multi-media installations, and sculptures, and so his work is very grounded in what could easily be termed "lowbrow" culture. Now, I'm not a Philistine; I appreciate high-concept work, and I can find the humor (if not necessarily the appraisable value) of his Santa Claus porn videos, Zapruder film reenactment, and even the giant, inflatable, chocolate butt plug. But I would be lying if I confessed to seeing anything deep, meaningful, or pleasing about that red, melted gnome in the upper left corner of this post. This exemplifies the disconnect between the pedantic and the public, and in that respect McCarthy as provocateur is the Donald Trump of the fine art establishment.

There might not be much harm in enjoying an occasional dose of juvenility, but for such work to become the standard bearer of academia... well let's just say there is a danger in that.

Beefy by Mikal Winn
Available for $12,000
This past Friday, right here at La Luz de Jesus Gallery, we opened an exhibition of Mikal Winn's sculpted assemblage pieces. Winn uses taxidermy forms, road kill, damaged antiques and other discarded materials in congress with porcelain, Swarovsky crystals, precious metals and other inherent symbols of opulence to render exquisite creations that address the complexities of life and death in an uncompromising and yet highly palatable presentation. Mikal Winn is everything that Paul McCarthy no longer is (and perhaps never was): a highly skilled technician, whose high-concept work lacks masturbatory conceit and thus lends itself to widespread appreciation. Winn's sculptures are not just conversation starters, they are show-stoppers.

I know that it has become novel to bag on contemporary art, and criticizing the wealthy has always been in vogue–especially as a form of disapproval. But I'm not a classicist. I would no more judge a collector for their bank account than for their race, creed, color, or age. Many patrons of the arts donate significant sums to charitable enterprises, and their disposable income fuels local economies.

Investment in art, however, is mostly a kind of tax shelter, whereby funds that could be taxed if left in a bank can't be taxed if spent on art until the point of resale. By that criteria the more money spent and the smaller the space it occupies, the better. Often, such art is placed directly in a warehouse rather than actually displayed. Best, then, if that art can be loaned to a respected institution who will care for it, store it, and give it additional provenance. In that respect, less expensive art becomes more of a hassle for them since it protects less of their taxable income and occupies more physical space. Investment art starts at $20,000 on the low end, but is generally hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars and those private sales and auction results fuel the rest of the market like a price guide.

Rose by Mikal Winn
Available for $3,200
But if your art collecting is motivated by aesthetic and not by a need to hide millions of dollars in tax shelters, it seems like a no-brainer to me that you would want to surround yourself with well-made things. And something need not be technical to qualify as well-made. The soul-stirring simplicity of self-taught work can be just as evocative as a practiced, learned discipline. While generally less-technical, naive art can be richer in emotion. The beautiful thing about art is the nearly endless variety of styles available to match your specific taste. A healthy collection of contemporary art will often encompass a variety of genres that find context in the presence of other, disparate forms. Too much of one thing can run the risk of appearing to lack perspective. It's fun to juxtapose Rembrandt and Rothko, which is why many private collectors seek to recreate the variety of a museum experience in their homes.

But just as the mainstream news media has been blamed for the rise of Donald Trump, so too must contemporary art critics take a bit of the blame for the meteoric prices we're seeing for banal and poorly executed art. Money is not taste. But if coverage isn't given to good work, money won't find it. I'd rather read a positive review of lesser known art than a complete savaging of a sacred cow, and besides, not covering a big show is more damaging than a negative review.

Mikal Winn & Dave Lebow
If you see an excellent show, blog about it, podcast about it, Youtube it and Instagram it and be sure to tag the artists and the gallery. Your ability to articulate what you appreciate will find an audience and you'll be doing a favor for the people and places you appreciate. Your access to quality being missed by the publications that should know will come to their attention and your ability to identify the voice of the zeitgeist will usurp lazy journalism. And to be clear, there are so many astute and talented writers in the world of art criticism who are shackled by uninspired editors. It's fine to hand in your 1500 words on Jeff Koons for Artnet, but please fill your blog with equal time for the emerging talents in your own backyards.

Thank you, art world.

–Matt Kennedy, May 2016