Category Archives: Politics

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE National Museum of American History, Artillery Magazine, July 2014

This press release was a work of art I contributed to Artillery Magazine’s “Celebrity” issue in July of 2013. The press release was published, as is, with no explanation, in the magazine.

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The National Museum of American History to Exhibit Artworks by Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush

The National Museum of American History is pleased to presentPresidential Pictures: Paintings & Drawings by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. This unprecedented exhibition brings together works from three of the most powerful and influential men in American history. Presidential Pictures will no doubt open the public’s eyes to the fact that these men were not just great politicians but also true artists.

While he is best known as the American president who desegregated the U.S. armed forces and public schools, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960, and articulated the anti-Communist “domino theory,” Dwight D. Eisenhower was also a dedicated painter. Having taken up the art in 1948 to relieve the stress of being Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Eisenhower created hundreds of images before, during and after his presidential tenure. He even had an artist’s studio installed in the White House. Always a straight-shooter, the former President was quick to dismiss symbolic meanings viewers might read into his tranquil images of farm houses, mountains, and mirthful family members. At a 1967 exhibition of his paintings, the former president told United Press International reporter Richard Cohen, “They would have burned this [expletive] a long time ago if I weren’t the president of the United States.” Referring to his portrait of Abraham Lincoln—based on a photo by Alexander Gardner—one cannot help but consider the thoughts that went through the artist’s mind as he carefully rendered the shine on the forehead of his heroic predecessor. President Eisenhower’s work is provided courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum, The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum, and David and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

It’s no secret that Ronald Reagan was an actor before he was a politician, starring in dozens of films, from Santa Fe Trail to The Voice of The Turtle. Political and film historians have proposed that President Reagan’s work as a stage and screen actor, President of The Screen Actors Guild, and spokesman for General Electric, allowed him to cultivate a “Teflon” façade, an impermeable presence that deflected criticism from the Iran-Contra affair to his indolence at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. But did you know President Reagan was also a cartoonist before and after his time in office? Visitors to this exhibition will get the rare chance to explore President Reagan’s prolific drawing practice through his images of cowboys, horses, football stars, butlers and even caricatures of hook-nosed men and mustachioed Asian faces. As President Reagan said in a 1984 letter to political cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, “I am a cartoon aficionado up to and including reading the comics every morning.” Amidst these pictures—most of them doodled on White House stationery—one sees the president’s externalized mental space in the moments between moments, when meetings got a little too boring and he needed some distraction. President Reagan’s work comes to us courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library and the many private collectors credited in the exhibition’s catalog.

Unlike his artistic predecessors, George W. Bush took up the palette knife after leaving office. America knows the Decider in Chief as the man who battled for the contentious 2000 election, initiated the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and signed The Patriot Act into law. But in 2014, President Bush had his first museum show of portraits comprising images of global leaders such as Vladimir Putin and the Dalai Lama, all taken from the Google image search engine. Since then, he’s never looked back. Speaking of his now prolific painting practice, President Bush told CNN’s John King, “I relax. I see colors differently. I am, I guess, tapping a part of the brain that, you know, certainly never used when I was a teenager.” Amongst the former president’s numerous portraits, visitors will have the opportunity to fully experience the former Commander in Chief’s visual perspective on what it was like to connect with global leadership. President Bush’s paintings appear courtesy of The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

A catalog with essays by Lynne Cheney, Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith accompanies this exhibition.

Special Events:
Feb. 6: To celebrate his birthday, the museum will screen Knute Rockne: All American, starring the former president. A panel moderated by former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will follow.

Starting Feb. 14, President George W. Bush will teach a 10-week drawing and painting class, focusing on classical technique. Students will produce a portrait and a still life, using live models and nature mortes arranged specifically by the 43rd president. Reservations required.

Up Next At The Museum:
Missing! A photographic survey of looted artifacts from the Vietnam, Afghan and Iraq wars.

 

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How Many Billboards? Art In Stead at The MAK Center

Originally published in ART LIES No. 67 Fall/Winter 2010 p/ 90-91

The largest artist billboard project of its kind in LA history, How Many Billboards? Art In Stead, is both an exhibition of great complexity and breadth. Organized under the roof of The MAK Center, and curated by Kimberli Meyers, Lisa Henry, Nizan Shaked, and Gloria Sutton, the exhibition consists of 21 billboards conceived by 21 contemporary artists, all of whom practice in the vein of conceptual art. Dispersed around the LA region in locations primarily bound by the 110, 101, 10, and 405 freeways, the billboards were up for over four months, during which time they were relocated from ‘hood to ‘hood as their original billboard locations were rented out by other ad companies. Given that it covers so much ground, the show is so big and dispersed that it’s difficult to absorb, both physically and critically, as collective whole.

Kerry Tribe's billboard photographed by Gerard Smulevich

Aside from accomplishing great feats of bureaucratic maneuvering and countless negotiations with corporations, artists, printers and governmental agencies, the greatest success of this exhibition is that it interjects a great deal of art into the LA skyline, creating the opportunity to see something out of the ordinary away from the confines of a white cube gallery. Whether such an experience is at all necessary is up for debate. However, all discussions about public art for the public good aside, the collection of works in How Many Billboards, are indeed impressive and critically engaging, providing an opportunity to see the city anew. But the artistic propositions at play in this exhibition are not without some faults.

James Welling's billboard photographed by Gerard Smulevich

In the wonderfully written catalog that archives the exhibition, curator Kimberli Meyer points out that, with regards to these artist billboards,  “Site supersedes content and intent, in the sense that whatever appears on the billboard is read according to the conventions of the billboard as site.”[1] This notion of the billboard as a publically accessible site with prescribed viewing parameters presents the greatest problem for the works in this exhibition, and no doubt the greatest challenge for the artists involved. How does one make art framed by the insidious interpolating conventions of corporate advertizing, and avoid creating a situation that apes the look of guerilla marketing, ad campaigns that masquerade as individual or iconoclastic gestures, only to reveal their corporate advertizing motivations at a later date?

Many of the billboards in the exhibition risk falling into this trap, the most unfortunate being James Welling’s and Kerry Tribe’s respective works. Welling’s work is a photograph of a sumptuous field of blue bands that crisscross like Fox searchlights, against a black field. Tribe’s piece is a photograph of a brooding cloud-filled sky, intended to provide a contrast to LA’s perpetually clear (if you don’t count smog) firmament. While both works do provide the opportunity for one to pause for a minute and perhaps meditate on the intrinsic abstract potential of photograph and nature, they have the unmistakable look of advertising in the making, as if at any moment they could sprout a Levi’s logo. It’s a cynical view to take, but not one without merit: they risk reading as harbingers of ads to come.

The most successful works in the exhibition get around this problem by either fully embracing the billboard as discursive site framed by advertizing conventions, or displaying imagery that is difficult, if impossible, for corporate interests to co-opt. Works by Martha Rosler and John Knight work do just this.

Knight gave control over the imagery that would appear in the billboard allotted to him to the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), thereby complicating and subverting his role as the “creative” force behind the final formal character of the billboard itself. MECA “completed” the work by submitting their ad, an image of a stock photo of a droplet of water overlaid with the text

“from LA to Palestine

Clean, Drinkable Water is a Human Right.”

MECA’s logo and web address appears along the bottom of the image across from the MAK center url (which appears on every billboard in the exhibition).

John Knight's billboard photographed by Gerard Smulevich

The billboard is placed on The Sunset Strip, one of the most expensive advertizing corridors in America, where a billboard of this size would cost millions of dollars to exhibit for the duration of this show. MECA would never be able to afford nor justify the cost of a large billboard in this location. Looking at the billboard itself, it seems highly out-of-place alongside slick blingged-out ads for Gucci and the latest summer blockbuster. In this way, Knight uses his work to call attention to all the other billboards along the strip, while at the same time providing a highly visible platform for MECA to get their message across.

Knight could very well be taken to task for the strategic benevolence of his gesture, and such a critique is warranted given the existing model of corporations “donating” services and air time to public service messages, only to spend just as much money notifying the public of their good deeds. Yet the geopolitical and economic critique embedded in Knight’s project does much to avert such accusations.

Martha Rosler and Josh Neufeld’s also used the exhibition as an opportunity to address a pressing but often overlooked political and social justice issue. For their work they present a cartoon depicting students and schools turning into prisoners and prisons. The primary language in the piece reads: “CALIFORNIA is #1 in PRISON SPENDING and # 48 in EDUCATION Save our higher education system for California and our kids! ”. It’s hard to imagine any Fortune 500 company willing to slap their logo onto this billboard. As a work of art the piece would read as overly propagandistic were it situated in a conventional “art context” like a gallery or museum. Yet as part of this exhibition it makes sense.

Martha Rosler with Josh Neufeld billboard photographed by Gerard Smulevich

Like any effective work of art, Rosler and Neufeld’s work takes advantage of the situation at hand and uses it to its greatest affects. This is the lesson that all future works made in the model of How Many Billboards? should take to heart. Rather than simply transplant art in to billboard form, the most successful works in this exhibition do the opposite, making an art out of the very notion of a billboard, not just art as a billboard. The result, when it succeeds, empowers viewers to acutely view both art and billboard as conspicuous facets of the visual landscape.

Tucker Neel is an artist and curator in Los Angeles (tuckerneel.com). He is also Founder and Director of 323 Projects (323projects.com).


[1] Meyer, Kimberli, “Speech In The City” in How Many Billboards? Art In Stead. Edited by Peter Noever and Kimberli Meyer, P. 13. Germany: MAK Center and Verlag fur moderne Kunst, 2009.

Collection: MOCA’s First 30 Years

Collection: MOCA’s First 30 Years

originally published in ARTLIES Magazine Issue 66, June 2010

By Tucker Neel

Collection: MOCA’s First 30 Years is an overwhelming and astonishing exhibition arranged according to a loose chronology, containing a treasure-trove assortment of over five hundred works by over two hundred artists,  from 1939 to the present. It’s a challenge just trying to see every work in the museum’s two cavernous Geffen and Grand Ave. buildings, but the remarkable amount of work guarantees something for everyone. It’s an amazing and commendable show. That said, this is not an exhibition without problems.

Aside from the inevitable questions of who gets included, whose work shares a gallery, and which collectors see their donations exhumed from storage, MOCA’s curators, led by Chief Curator Paul Schimmel, had to discern which work best exemplifies the institution itself. This last and most problematic question lingers heavily in the air, coloring how one sees each work as a representation of MOCA’s past, present, and future.

The last year and a half for MOCA was a perilous and controversial time, to say the least. In November of 2008, The LA Times revealed that the museum was running on fumes, its operating costs far outweighing its dwindling endowment. In response, Jeremy Strick, the museum’s Director, floated the idea of dissolving the museum, and merging its collection with LACMA just down the road. Then, all hell broke loose.

Letters were written to editors and angry crowds demanded answers. LA wouldn’t stand the idea of losing MOCA. Strick resigned, and Eli Broad, L.A.’s resident Medici, swooped in with $30-million to save the museum. Nearly a year later, the board announced that the art dealer / gallery owner Jeffery Deitch (a Broad chum) would become the museum’s next Director. The decision was met with restrained praise from the art world, though a palpable undercurrent of concern still lingers; many see the Deitch appointment as a harbinger of conflicts of interests to come. In between Broad’s cash injection and Deitch’s appointment, 30 Years opened to the public.

Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929, Stockholm; lives and works in New York) Work from The Store, 1961 Muslin soaked in plaster over wire frame, painted with enamel, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles The Panza Collection

When Pop Art asserts itself in the Grand Ave. building, in the same room as a powerful installation of Claus Oldenburg’s drippy plaster commodities from his groundbreaking 1961 installation, The Store, echoes of the museums very recent tumultuous near death experience come to the fore. Try taking a picture of Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Can (Clam Chowder- Manhattan Style) and a museum guard will politely ask you not to photographs the work. Why? Just look at their wall labels. Both read: “The Edyth and Eli Broad Collection, Los Angeles,” next to a crossed-out camera ideogram. Both works, and at least three more, belong to the Broads and are not even promised gifts to MOCA.

My clandestine photo of Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Can (Clam Chowder- Manhattan Style)

The Broad label telling me not to photograph the Warhol on loan. Notice the crossed out camera

While the Broad’s pieces fill a gaping hole in MOCA’s collection, which houses only one pivotal Warhol, his Telephone, a hand-painted work from 1961, their presence, as privately owned works on loan from the museum’s major creditor, is even more conspicuous, and compromises the exhibition’s stated goal: to show work the museum owns. If the Broad pieces are allowed into play, why not borrow more work, from other collectors, to mend another problem: the dearth of women artists, who make up about one fourth of the total artists represented?

The exhibition highlights a few undeniable touchstones. MOCA has impressive Rothko and Kline collections, and owns some of Rauschenberg’s best combine sculptures, which alone are worth the price of admission. Of the more contemporary artists represented, Paul McCarthy, Renee Green, and Mike Kelly, each stand out with large, complex, and engaging installations.

That said, the exhibition isn’t so kind to every piece. Louise Nevelson’s impressive but poorly lit Sky Cathedral/Southern Mountain from 1959 languishes like an afterthought against a chapel-like room designed specifically to highlight Jackson Pollock’s No. 1 from 1949. In the Geffen building, Andrea Zittel’s A to Z Breeding Unit: For Averaging Eight Breeds, from 1993, is easy to miss, hidden away in darkness just left of the entrance. And most astonishing of all, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (A Corner of Baci), 1990 is entirely missing. Replacing the 42 pound pile of chocolates every day is obviously too expensive for the cash-strapped museum.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres (b. 1957, Guáimaro, Cuba; d. 1996, Miami) Untitled (A Corner of Baci), 1990 Baci chocolates individually wrapped in silver foil (endless supply) Dimensions vary with installation; ideal weight: 42 pounds The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Where Felix Gonzalez-Torres' Corner of Baci should have been.

Each piece in the exhibition is accompanied by a brief artist’s quotation, and some do sum up entire practices particularly well. Take, for example, On Kawara’s, poetic statement, which accompanies ninety of the his I Go Up At… postcards to John Baldessari from 1974-5:

We are the same, but different.

Things are the same, but different.

The days are the same, but different.

On Kawara (b. 1933, Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan; lives and works in New York) I Got Up At…, 1974–75 Ninety postcards with printed rubber stamps 3 1/2 x 4 in. each and 4 x 6 in. each The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Gift of John Baldessari and Denise Spampinato

But without proper contextualization, one is left to ask where, and when, these quotes come from. MOCA has provided a telephone number that visitors can call to get more information about select works on view. The phone-in info is quite good, but what is one without an unlimited calling plan or, GASP! no cell at all, to do?

When the show succeeds, which is does more often than not, it’s by creating unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated works that would otherwise remain anchored to well-worn art historical narratives. This happens in a room where The Americans, Robert Frank’s seminal photo series, encircles Rayvredd, a modest sculpture of crushed automotive oddments by John Chamberlain from 1962. Before this exhibition, I would have thought the two artists’ works couldn’t be farther apart, yet here they riff off each other with oscillating evocations. Moving through Frank’s America, rife with booming car culture, blinding optimism, bombastic politicians, and seething inequality, Chamberlain’s glistening conglomeration of twisted metal resonates as a physical and metaphorical reminder of the turbulence, violence, and crashes that also populate the American dream.

John Chamberlain's Rayvredd surrounded by Robert Frank's The Americans

When 30 Years closes after its nearly seven-month run, misgivings about poor budgeting decisions, questionable appointments, and overlooked artists will no doubt persist. Such critiques are vital, perhaps more than ever, and they surely will help to keep MOCA in check. But in the end, once the works return to their vaults, no one will doubt the museum’s indispensible place as a home for contemporary art, its position as an invaluable resource, housing some of the greatest works since World War II.

Tucker Neel is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles.

ART WITH SOME MEAT TO IT: Fallen Fruit’s Daily Servings

FALLEN Fruit wants you to eat your neighborhood. It wants you to pound the pavement and pluck the ripe fruit hanging above your head. It wants you to imagine what your city can be, and works to make this dream a reality. With their first solo shows, “United Fruit” at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), and “Fresh ‘n Easy” at Another Year in LA, running simultaneously, this quintessentially LA collective truly reps their hood and proves they are out to change the world one bite at a time.

fallen-fruit-bananas3

While they have countless comrades and collaborators, the official Fallen Fruit collective is composed of David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young. The three joined forces in 2004 in response to The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest’s call for work proposing real world solutions to pressing social and political problems. The trio looked at the sprawling LA landscape and stumbled upon an elegant solution to car-cocoon alienation, malnutrition and the wasted fruit littering public land. They decided to map the locations of publicly accessible fruit in their immediate Silver Lake neighborhood because, according to helpful attorneys, collecting fruit on LA public land is technically “not illegal.”

fallenfruit

As the collective’s mission statement points out, this public fruit is “blessed by neglect,” pesticide-free, making it organic. Picking it also circumvents the need for petroleum packaging and transportation, and performs a civic duty by preemptively eliminating fruit waste underfoot. Their maps, now charting areas far beyond Silver Lake and into other states and countries, actively encourage you to get out of your car, explore where you live and talk to strangers.

Inspired to put theory into action, Fallen Fruit got their hands dirty. Decked out in custom-made uniforms, they led groups on “Nocturnal Fruit Forages,” picking produce along the way. They teamed up with Islands of LA to plant tomatoes on traffic islands, and held an unforgettable salsa party at the Center for Land Use Interpretation. And they created intoxicating “Neighborhood Infusions,” blending local fruit with liquor. To this day they periodically hold “Public Fruit Jams” with Machine Projects, where people bring in found fruit to make delicious preserves.

newfallenfruitofsilverlake

Earlier this year the collective participated in a residency in Ciénega, Columbia in South America. In 1928, workers at banana plantations all over Columbia owned by United Fruit (now Chiquita Banana) went on strike demanding contracts and better working conditions. During a peaceful gathering in Ciénega, hundreds of men, women and children were massacred by army machine-gun fire as military troops, requested by United Fruit, attempted to violently put down the strike. Against this backdrop, in this site of past massacre, and with bananas on the brain, Fallen Fruit decided to make work for the LACE show, addressing the personal and political history of a fruit too often taken for granted.

ftr1_img2

In the main gallery at LACE viewers are confronted with a humongous photomural of an iconic peeled banana juxtaposed across from a larger-than-life banana plantation worker brandishing a worn rifle. A suite of nine hefty photo portraits of banana workers contrasts with un-idealized images of banana fields. In the back room video interviews with Columbian locals seek to personalize the individual’s connection with the banana as a social and historical phenomena. And in the video projection, The Banana Machine, adolescents peel and eat bananas in Warholian screen-test silence. Another projection across the room, Los Bananeros, shows workers processing bananas in a factory. The videos invite viewers to contemplate both their personal relation to the yellow fruit, as well as think about the labor that occurs between when a banana is planted, and when it is consumed.

ftr1_img3

For Another Year In LA gallery, the group carried over the visual feel of The Banana Machine, exhibiting a wall of photos depicting adolescent youth bearing a variety of fruit in deadpan Caravaggio-like compositions. Additionally, in the commercial gallery, Fallen Fruit literally opens shop, making customized household objects, all associated with food, available for public consumption at affordable prices. With echoes of Jenny Holzer’s early truism paraphernalia, each item is emblazoned with a striking phrase. A cutting board reads, “wut a fag.” A spoon states, “these guys are obviously anarchists.” A knife is etched with the words “fucking hippies.” And in keeping with their old school roots, Fallen Fruit has also provided fruit for visitors to take away in exchange for fruit they bring in themselves.

FF-cuttingboard_wut2

Over the course of a few e-mail exchanges, I asked Matias Viegener how he sees Fallen Fruit’s recent LA shows as venues for building on their work practice:

TN: Your work to date has incorporated a lot of “relational esthetics,” person-to-person exchange and community building. Yet the shows at LACE and Another Year in LA don’t necessarily embody this kind of relational art approach. In the gallery no one is really there to interact with viewers. I know you have done shows in gallery spaces before, but how did you approach this new situation?

MV: We try to balance the participatory work with what for now I’ll call the more traditional work: images, videos, installations, etc. At first the visual work (which we love doing as well) was primarily to attract and engage participants, to get people to come to the fruit jam, mappings, fruit forages, etc. A bit of it was documentation, but that was secondary until spring 2008. At that point footage of ours got edited by KCET and placed on YouTube, which for one or two days made it their “featured” front page video — where it received some scathing commentary. We felt a little like we had lost control of the work (both its participatory nature and its representation) and we realized that it would “enter representation” whether we wanted it or not.

FF_f_hippies

We ended up loving the nasty commentary and also realized that while we had been working with one definition of public and private space, there was another fascinating one out there (seen in YouTube): the anonymity of the Internet which is public and private at the same time. And even more interesting was that we saw a kind of participatory aspect to what might initially seem like a traditional one-way representation.

TN: Was it a challenge making saleable objects for Another Year In LA, and stepping outside of your traditional practice?

MV: It felt very natural. We’re at a point with the collaboration that it takes more time than anything else any of us do. It’s always operated in the red, and we accepted that it now had to bring in money one way or another. The core of the Another Year show were the “everyday objects,” which are of course consumer objects (practical ones, unlike luxuries such as art). Pulling the text from the Double Standard video felt just right: it’s a form of recycling, but also harvesting what we find, which was essential to Fallen Fruit from the start.

Maybe another way to engage your question would be to say that the world demands of artists that we produce primarily two-dimensional portable commodities that hold value. Rather than reject that demand (which plays into the necessity of earning a living), we embraced it. Pricing was a big question for us. Are these just nice domestic objects or limited production art commodities? We chose the former. The prices reflect the cost of materials and production, but the “mark-up” is small — far less than any small-scale economy of production would allow.

EVEN with two shows up simultaneously, the collective isn’t slowing down, so the need for working funds is understandable. Their ongoing “Colonial History of Fruit” project has Fallen Fruit traveling to New Zealand to wrestle with kiwis, and to Norway to tackle arctic berries. With global ambitions like this, Fallen Fruit seems destined to turn the dream of a sustainable, fruit-conscious world into a delicious reality, ripe for the picking.

See “United Fruit” at LACE thru Sept. 27. For more info on Fallen Fruit visit fallenfruit.org.

UNITED_FRUIT_Fallen_Fruit

by Tucker Neel

tuckerneel.com

tuckerneel.wordpress.com

The Unique Spectacle That Is The Contemporary Art Fair

By Tucker Neel

Originally published in  Fine Art Magazine, Vol. 33 No 1, Spring 2008, 67.

Installation at Gavin Brown Projects

Installation at Gavin Brown Projects

Art Basel is like watching your parents have sex, or so says one of my favorite graduate school professors. While the gallery/collector public displays of affection and private backroom deals may seem to spoil the mood, the roaring art market wouldn’t be able to survive in its current state without Basel.

For many galleries Miami in December is the time and place to unload inventories and increase reserves for the coming year. This sobering reality doesn’t diminish the queasiness that comes with seeing work you adore hanging clustered like so much meat in a butcher’s window. Hearing dealers and collectors talk in frank, Warholian terms about how much is it now and how much it will be worth in a year seems to take the fun out of looking at the work in the first place. And watching works sell to earnest collectors and hotel chains alike, and knowing that in a few months the entire cycle will start again can put a damper on any sort of art-school-fueled idealism.

Yet if one can overlook its artistic and creative constraints, Basel can become a welcome opportunity for artists. Where else can one interact with so many intelligent, influential (an often inebriated) artists, writers, curators, and cultural mavens from all over the world? If anything, the multiple fairs allow for thousands of artists to contrast practices and compare conceptual interests.

Once inside the fairs the repetition of materials and methods was at times overwhelming. Every-day objects cast in metal, taxidermied animals, reconstituted designer goods, Photoshopped history paintings masquerading as photographs, utilitarian tools covered in sparkles, crystals and glitter, adolescent flat watercolors, oversized celebrity-themed photographs and paintings, abject libidinal cartoons, finish-fetish metals, neon, glitter, cardboard, and used and unused bottles of alcohol – all cropped up again and again in countless booths.

This is not to say that any of the works employing these techniques were inherently derivative. In fact, an outstanding work at Art Basel employed more than one of these material concerns. Oliver Payne and Nick Relph’s installation at Gavin Brown Projects allowed visitors to peruse the duo’s stylish retro sneakers stuffed with expensive bottles of Chateau Latour, strategically placed alongside antiquated technology like a tan Macintosh Classic computer or an old Tamagotchi keychain. Displayed on well-lit platforms a’ la Prada or the MOMA’s design wing, the work embodied a kind of dandy decorative sensibility, updating Haim Steinbach’s 80’s consumer fetish wall displays for a new nostalgic millennium.

Another work, also reminiscent of Jason Rhodes’ plastic phantasmagoria, was Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Infinito Botanica at Frederieke Taylor’s booth at the Pulse art fair. Here the artist arranged a crowded table of religious idols draped in fake foods, pizza, Corona beer bottles, ceramic tzotchkes and pop art piñatas. The booth’s walls were crammed with clichéd paintings of whimsical white dresses, lonesome suited figures, and brooding faces, all of which looked like they came straight from a local mall’s Fine Art emporium. The overall effect was not only humorous, but also keenly critical of the art fair’s tendency to value commerce over kunst, likening the entire experience to a carnival of conspicuous consumption.

However not all standouts employed an over-the-top aesthetic. Jay Johnson’s Some Kind of Meal in Quint Contemporary Art’s booth at Art Miami sparsely speckled an unremarkable wall with minuscule bronze objects: a bottle, a pill, a funnel–each referencing human relationships to food, eating, digestion, and sustenance. The work insisted on placing the viewer in a self-reflexive position, highlighting one’s own bigness next to the work’s conspicuous smallness. This physical sensation no doubt heightened by the work’s close proximity to nearby bombastic and self-consciously BIG painting and photography.

Unfortunately some artists and galleries can take reductive tendencies too far. Take Wilfredo Prieto’s El Tiempo es Oro / Time is Gold installation in Martin Von Zomeren’s booth at NADA for example. The entire booth was painted machine-gun blue, empty, save for a single gold pocket watch dangling from the ceiling. With this didactic polemic deployed in such a privileged space, the piece clumsily strives to addresses the economies of space and time associated with paying for and showing in an expensive fair. But the piece does little more than scream its castigations in a familiar tone at an uninterested and unreceptive audience. While Prieto has made his name practicing similar flat-footed institutional critiques (some of them at times quite acerbic and poignant), he, and many other artists with similar goals, could learn a thing or two from Yves Klein.

While admittedly operating under less anti-capitalist pretenses, Klein spoke to Prieto’s current concerns with Le Vide, his now legendary performance from 1956. For this work the artist provided blue cocktails to guests attending his opening in a gallery that featured nothing displayed on its blank white walls. Upon returning home after the show and retiring to the water closet, the patrons found that their urine had turned a patented Yves Klein Blue. He had effectively used the tools of the trade (booze and a party) to highlight the merger of the gallery/patron relationship, making the remnant of such public interaction visible in the most private of places.

Maybe the art world is too jaded to take note of pranks like this. Maybe we’ve seen it all before. However, Cut out ‘however’ one can only hope that more artists could channel Klein’s strategic humor within the primed setting Basel provides. Such an informed, simple, and hilarious intervention would no doubt usher in new ways of seeing and participating in the unique spectacle that is the contemporary art fair.

Nancy Chunn the Otis College Ben Maltz Gallery

By Tucker Neel

Originally published in ISM Magazine March, 2008

Installation shot of Chunn's Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear

Installation shot of Chunn's Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear

Nancy Chunn is a self-described political junkie. Her most recent show, Media Madness, at Otis College of Art and Design, attests to her addiction to the news, an addiction that seems to suit her well. While she doesn’t take revenge on the news media per se, Chunn acts more like a sieve, distilling current events into a personal lexicon of images, signs and symbols to make maps, diagrams, and hieroglyphs that express her fears, frustrations, humor and anxieties.

Chunn is best known for Front Pages, a body of work from January 1- December 31, 1997. During this year she drew on the front page of each day’s New York Times newspaper with bright pastels, adding her own images over photographs, obscuring headlines and sometimes entire stories with expanses of color and carefully chosen texts. Media Madness presents the viewer with two months, June and July, arranged as if they were days on a calendar displaced onto the gallery wall.

Chunn’s interventions champion her own subjectivity with quips and witticisms and comic-book-like images that bring out the humor, sadness, or ambivalence she feels in relation to the stories in the paper. So a story on, say, an I.R.A. bombing in a British city, condenses into “UP TO THEIR OLD TRICKS” (written in green of course) above two explosions. By whittling the daily news into one-liners, easily digestible combinations of images and text, she replicates the corporate media’s habit of substituting surface for substance, producing sound bites instead of informed analysis, talking points enslaved to the constraints of a scrolling news ticker.

Whether the viewer agrees with Chunn’s summation of the daily news is beside the point. The work is wholly about one woman’s act of reading and reflecting over the course of a year. The artist is the sole locus for the work so impartiality flies out the window. Here we see how the news acts on and through a person. In this way her work performs entirely differently from conventional news media, which relies on the myth of objectivity to maintain credibility.

In addition to revisiting Chunn’s seminal work, Media Madness also includes Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear. Consisting of a suite of four different installations of dozens of small and large canvases arranged on the gallery wall in an expansive salon style, the work tells the story of Chicken Little, a worrisome fowl beset by seemingly endless obstacles and hazards, from falling televisions to homicidal tractors, bimbos in Broncos, and invasive CIA agents. While the work turns many current political, environmental and social issues into a fable with no resolution, Chunn has said that when she completes the last group of paintings she’ll eventually have Chicken Little working for Fox News, a fitting end to a story about fear mongering in the new millennium.

The images of burning forests, toxic waste, genetically modified food and over-consumption in Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear may just be fleeting glimpses of a world temporarily out of balance, or images of an entrenched uber-capitalism that generates countless injustices and neglected catastrophes. Perhaps the saddest thing of all, and what gives Chunn’s work legs, is that the symbols and icons imbedded in her work will outlive the immediacy, the context, of their creation.

This observation came to the fore in her Four Seasons painting series. Utilizing Chunn’s familiar stock of symbols first developed in the Front Pages series, the paintings depict major news stories that occurred during each of the four seasons in 1999. But if it weren’t for the didactic wall text explaining the subjects of each work, one could easily see these paintings as contemporaneous with today’s breaking news. In this way they are history paintings, their subjects specific, yet enduring.

In Spring Cleaning (Spring 1999) the flat, angular images of fallen bodies, fighter jets, armed soldiers, and explosions meant to reference the violence of the Columbine school shootings and the war in Kosovo immediately bring to mind the dead bodies and battle fields associated with the seemingly endless wars America fights either directly or by proxy all over the world today. The message in the work may be rooted in a specific time and place, but the larger polemic is not necessarily historically constitutive. As long as war and violence are part of our everyday life, these pictographs of crumbling buildings, troop formations, bombs, funerals, guns and dollar signs will have lasting resonance.

Looking at Scandal (Winter 1998-99), emblazoned with Day-Glo images of sperm, moist red lips, a giant unzipping zipper and a garbage can stuffed with money and a copy of the Star Report, one cannot help but think of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinski muckraking that inspired this flamboyant painting. Yet the toilet at the center, the accusing fingers, computer, and the bald headed man exclaiming”Oops,” also immediately calls to mind the many right wing politicos recently outed for their less-than-hetero behavior. While the story in the painting is from a bygone era, its sentiment is symbolically perennial: We seem to be more interested in who politicians fuck than who they fuck over.

Perhaps this is the larger message imbedded in Chunn’s work, that we should use the news as a vehicle for developing our own symbolic, and perhaps radical responses. Registering dissatisfaction is a first step but we need to go beyond critiquing the news to actually making the news. Now that the time for action has come the pressing question is how do we, as cultural producers, change the game, rewrite the rules and shift the power structure in such a way that the images displayed in Chunn’s work are no longer up-to-date, but instead vestiges of an embarrassing yet distant past?