Friday, January 06, 2006

Descent Into Despair

I missed Max Schumann's July 2005 exhibition at Taxter & Spengemann Gallery. At the time, I wasn't familiar with the artist's work. I learned of Schumann only a month ago, when I read a review of his 2005 New York outing. Curious as to what exactly the reviewer was describing, I visited the gallery's website.

The exhibition press release reads as follows:
"This installation consists of approximately 150 artworks. Each painting is 'signed' with a price, rather than the artist's signature, directly on the painting. As the work is sold it will be removed from the wall, additional work will be added, and the installation will be rearranged in consideration of its new content. To the extent that work is purchased, the installation will be in a constant state of change, and will be realized over the period of the exhibition."
Artist Matthew Ritchie, a long time favorite of mine, was a fan of the show. He is quoted in the December 2005 issue of ArtForum, saying, "I bought 'Set Yourself Free (Green Zombie)'...for forty-five dollars and felt like I'd just got Manhattan for a string of glass beads." I'd be excited, too, were I to acquire an artwork that I liked for such a low price! Unlike Ritchie, though, my overall reaction to Schumann's exhibition is ambivalent.

Viewing the few paintings displayed on the Taxter & Spengeman site, it becomes clear that Schumann is playing the role of artist-as-cultural-mirror. Rather than condemn or critique his subjects, he merely presents them. The viewer is allowed to absorb the familiar, contemporary images and to make her own value judgments. These judgments won't come as a surprise; after all, viewers know what they think of SUVs, protestors, or George W. Bush before they walk in the gallery door.

But this doesn't matter to Schumann. The conceptual centerpiece of the exhibition has little to do with the paintings or even the viewers' reaction to them. Instead, it is the Schumann's sales and presentation model that takes center stage. The artist imitates the crazed economy of the day by embracing a low-cost, high-volume sales model.
"In keeping with his subjects, Schumann works in serial format, creating multiple versions of more or less the same image. As if to highlight the random rules of the economy of horror and violence, the gallery price for approximately identical works might be $10, $60, or $600. As works are sold, they will be removed while new works will be continually replenished with the exhibition in a constant state of flux throughout its duration...The controlled collaboration between artist/dealer and viewer/consumer is here rendered legible as a metaphor for our engagement with those systems."

-Todd Alden, "The Tough New Spirit of Dodge""
Fair enough. Part of me likes this bitter pill, but it is very bitter. Considering Schumann's enterprise, I sink into despair. What is his impetus? How can he adopt such a system without profound sorrow? Or is he, in fact, submerged in melancholy as a result of these efforts? I don't believe I could live with one of these Schumann's, emblazoned with a price as they are. For me, the exhibition works as a cultural artifact - a reflection of our time - but I am as discouraged by it as I am by the contemporary free-market, imperial zeitgeist.

Photo credit: images of Schumann paintings/exhibition installation from Taxter & Spengeman website


Michael said...

OK-- cheap prices, lots of work, cash and carry-- I know all that quite well, but c'mon! Trying to play like that's some big innovation in the artistic process is simply a marketing ploy... This is EXACTLY what I am doing at a coffee shop up the street. You want it; you buy it (cheaply I might add). You buy it; I add new work or rearrange to compensate. That's just shop keeping, not a friggin installation concept.

Michael said...

I forgot to add: BOLLOCKS!

Hungry Hyaena said...


I think my despairing reaction has a lot more to do with context. The many artists I know who, like you, sometimes sell through coffee shops or bars all rotate the pieces they hang. Afterall, the more you sell, the more likely you can cover rent for that month or maybe pay off a little more of the college loan.

Schumann, though, isn't such an artist. He is an Art World insider/aristocrat, initiated into the sect and unlikely to exhibit in a coffee shop ever again (if he ever did). Therefore, his bringing the WalMart approach to an Art World gallery does strike a cord, even if it is, in the end, bollocks.

Don't get me wrong, I agree 100%, which is part of the reason I'm so ambivalent about the show. The reason I don't write it off entirely, though, is the amount of "intellectual discourse" such a project generates - as annoying as it may be, it's hard to ignore when you're surrounded by it - and because it does provoke such a deep sense of sorrow in me...which a coffee shop or bar hanging never does.

I guess one model is simple reality - part of the struggle to make a living - and the other is ivory-tower dream world in which the artist intends to highlight the method. In the context of the coffee shop, I don't think much about how work is being sold. I'm focusing on the work...and my coffee.

Michael said...

I agree about the ivory tower aspect, but that's exactly what annoys me about it. I immediately think of another work that is in the VMFA here in Richmond (the artist's name eludes me). The piece is essentially brightly colored, not-quite-in-perspective cubes on a large wall. OK, ugly 80's junk, that I wouldn't look at more than twice... except that the big hoo-ha about it is that... get this... he got somebody else to do it for him. Not just anybody, workmen! Imagine it! Grimy, rednecks! Maybe even a Mexican or a black person! Oh how brilliant! The artist as composer... [Insert awed silence]
Which is fine, I guess, except that artists of one stripe or another have been getting people to make stuff for them since... well since the first slack-ass decided it was easier to talk somebody else into doing the drudgery. Seriously, this is the basis for just about every human hierarchy EVER. Not too innovative if you ask me.
Same thing here... I cease to be impressed by the appropriation of non-fine art techniques by fine artists. I mean, really, how many times do we have to bring the friggin urinal into the gallery before we can say 'point taken'?
Fact is I rather like the painting of Herr Dipshit that you had as a sample. I'd be pretty psyched to nab one of his paintings for 45 bucks... it's the grandiose circle-jerk that infuriates me... but perhaps that's why I'm here in my studio painting on a Friday night when the rest of Richmond is out at the gallery walk.

Martin said...

Yay! Richmond gallery walk night!

Michael said...

Just to clarify: I too say "Hooray for Richmond Gallery Walk!"
It really is quite good. Honestly, I would have struck that sentence minutes after I hit publish... no take backs!

james leonard said...

longtime lurker, first time poster here at HH. ;)

I went to this opening. I heard about it from a friend who has been friends with Max for over a decade. The way I heard it, though a longtime NYC resident (over a decade), Max had not had a solo commercial show in NYC. He is a bit of an outsider. At the opening he seemed intense, bearded, and shy.

As far as the work goes, it reproduces nicely. In person it has a deadened matte egg tempra quality. I think it photographs better than it holds up in person.

Regarding the arc of the show: it felt like there was a disconnect between the work and the "conceptual" pricing scheme. Both the work and the gesture hold a political edge. There could have been some common thread critiquing the consumption of images. But it never quite got there for me. The artist didn't seem too engaged or invested in that subject. The images looked more like he likes to zone out to 70's and 80's metal and paint with lots of red, black, and white.

But live and let live I suppose. I've got my own "hospital corners" hang ups regarding thorough conceptualism in work. Not everyone digs visual philosophy.

jim said...

Hey, he Does (still) show in non gallery spaces!! Check out the bar MaxFish on Ludlow St. in April. He and his friend Dale Wittig have shown there yearly for maybe a decade. Also, he showed in the lobby of the Theater for the New City on 1st Ave. a few months back. He's been doing his Cheap Art since the early 80's, selling his paintings for CHEAP, like $5 or even less in the old days. Now the cheap ones are $10... He probably wouldn't be insulted w/ the blog review title, though--it even sounds like it could be the name of one of his shows. But how wierd to review a show that you only saw a couple of web images of! His installations can be pretty amazing--though I actually thought the square box gallery setting didn't do much for his work...

Anonymous said...

The Max Fish show rocks. It's not as focused as the TNC show but it's very strong. And Wittig is an (unknown) but interesting artist. They've been at this stuff for a while and it shows.