Monday, March 19, 2007
There is a Dana Carvey sketch in which the comedian plays an auctioneer at Sotheby’s. Rather than being accommodating and encouraging toward his potential buyers, Carvey’s character indulges in outright mockery of them. As he sells items from the Kennedy estate, he imitates how he believes the buyers will act at home, privately enjoying their purchases. “Ooh, look at me,” he sneers between bids. “I’ve got JFK’s rocking chair! I’m JFK!” or “I’ve got Jackie O’s necklace! I’m Jackie O!” The bidders are clearly uncomfortable, but nevertheless they buy the items for typically extravagant prices. We laugh at the absurdity of Carvey’s insinuations until the camera cuts to a scene in which a winning bidder is sitting on his porch, rocking in JFK’s rocking chair, gleefully shouting, “Look at me! I’m JFK!”
The question of buyership and the relationship between buyer, work, artist, and dealer has been a subject of interest for artists who want to criticize the art market or use its absurdities as objects of play. I was reminded of this issue in several DC galleries recently. In a group show at the Adamson gallery, Enrique Martinez Celaya shows a piece called “The Dalai Lama.” Sold in an edition of thirty, this work is a small diptych consisting of a mundane digital print of a lightning bolt on one side and a mirror on the other. Whatever content the artist actually seeks to impart, my one persistent thought is that of the buyers at home admiring the work, and consequently themselves. “Look at me! I’m the Dalai Lama!” The idea of becoming significant by association, of buying one’s way into some kind of intellectual or artistic community, is certainly an intriguing way to think about buying art.
Quite a different idea about buyership pervades Andy Moon Wilson’s exhibit, Business, currently showing at The Curator’s Office. The show consists of hundreds of pen and ink drawings, mostly business card size, with a few larger pieces maxing out at around two feet. Subject matter includes space age architecture, weaponry, wallpaper-type flourishes, grotesque heads, grids of letters and numbers, and sarcastic cartoons that include both text and image. There is nothing particularly special about these drawings. They are skilled in and comfortable with the style they inhabit, which sees to be predominantly the Cartoon Network aesthetic. A few of the cards could stand alone as drawings, particularly some from the group of alphanumeric grids, which take varying shapes and seem influenced by crossword puzzles, wheel of fortune, and Alfred Jensen paintings. The question of audience comes up immediately, being that the drawings lack what typically engages an art audience: formal innovation, a conceptual edge, poignant content, a sense of risk-taking, exploration, or development. They mostly come across as well-executed doodles, probably most appealing to high school and college age boys, or a general public sufficiently impressed with attractive drawings.
So what is the message here? Is Moon Wilson trying to show up art world elitists by showing amateur-style work for an amateur audience in a professional gallery setting? The business card drawings are each priced at fifty dollars, making them accessible to those who would like to buy art but can rarely afford it. Two weeks into the show, nearly thirty cards had been sold. In addition, the business card as material seems to reference another trait of Moon Wilson’s probable buyership, DC professionals who work 9-5 jobs. This imagined audience is also likely to have a somewhat dorky edge, considering the sense of humor evident in many pieces, such as one that lists the top lessons to be learned from Robocop. Unlike Rob Pruitt’s Art for Teenage Boys series, which was clearly tongue-in-cheek even if rooted in real desires, Moon Wilson seems to revel in the teenage-boy aesthetic without really questioning it.
I applaud Moon Wilson’s idea to subvert the evil art market and make his work accessible to regular people. However, once his work finds its way into their homes, what is it going to say to them? Currently it risks simply verifying the general public’s misconception that art is only about something that looks cool on your wall. Of course, enjoying looking at a work of art is a better reason to buy it than the desire to be an important art intellectual, but that doesn’t excuse the artwork for lacking substance or depth.