Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Currency of Currency

This essay accompanies the exhibition "Currency Part 2:  Means of Exchange" opening Friday February 18th at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery.

Srdjan Loncar, "Value" (detail), courtesy the artist and Beta Pictoris Gallery, Birmingham, AL

To The Contrary

I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Money.  It is many things.  It has been described, variously, as the root of all evil, a gas, something you can’t take with you, or too tight to mention, among others.  It is a source of power, jealously and comfort, and at times it is all three.  

I am writing this while listening to “Got The Money”, a mashup of The Beatles and the Wu-Tang Clan, a sample from “You Never Give Me Your Money” providing a foundation, with Ol’ Dirty Bastard rapping over the top, and Kelis nailing the chorus melodically, if you can call “Hey/Dirty/Baby I got your money” a chorus…wait, what’s that he’s saying?  “If you wanna look good and not be bummy/girl you better give me that money.”  Means of exchange indeed.  

In the arts, money has been interrogated and represented again and again, whether in Andy Warhol’s dollar bill and dollar sign silkscreens (pause here to contextualize Warhol’s unexpected transition from documentarian to semiotician), or, in more abstract terms, in Damian Hirst’s recent diamond encrusted skull.  If there is something that incites passions and inflames tempers, something that is both factual and almost pornographic at the same time, it could be the value of art.   

I begin here because Currency Part 2:  Means of Exchange is an exhibition that critically interrogates and that maps the oscillating relationships between value and value – between some form of currency exchange on one hand, and, on the other, a work of art.  This is not to suggest that this is a study of worth, or of price.  Instead, it is a revelation that the artists in Currency Part 2:  Means of Exchange, are well aware of art’s tendency towards this conflation of values and, through their works, each skewers it.

Let’s begin, out of curating’s traditional alphabetical order, with the works that first caused my realization that two consecutive print exhibitions could explore two different constructions of currency.  In this case, Derek Cracco and I began with works by Curtis Readel, works that both appropriated and recontextualized money at precisely the same time.  Readel is difficult to classify, for he works across a range of media.  

What happens in his works is entirely unexpected.  Before we descend into a post 9/11 pathos, let’s think philosophically about the fact that Readel’s works tease the edges of precisely the sort of ruins that many Americans find themselves in today – financial ruin, brought on in part by both executive decisions by former and current leaders, and by laissez-faire fiscal policies propounded by the U.S. Treasury.  So what Readel does is simply appropriate imagery so familiar that most people don’t even consider its existence.  Think, for example, of what is on the back of the U.S. fifty dollar bill.  In fact, we categorize paper currency not by what is on the back, but who is on the front.  

So when Readel creates either White House in Ruins, or U.S. Treasury in Ruins, he is playing upon both the ubiquitousness and the invisibility of the material itself as much as he is commenting on social structure or political voice.  Then, to make the matter more complex, he takes something that normally appears roughly two by four inches, and he recreates it over a space of three by six feet.  Here, the specificity of the object becomes apparent, and the comments and ideas gain voice.

At times, Readel also makes the two dimensional become three.  We see the Genuis Seculi, a bronze bust of the dead George Washington.  The term translates roughly to “Guardian spirit of the age”, something we could definitely attribute to Washington as one of the founding fathers and the ‘father of our country.’  With this depiction, Readel clearly recognizes how even the most venerated forebears aren’t necessarily immune from the rages of time, nor is what they represent.

This complex relationship, between the economic and the political, is also ‘ground zero’ for Dan Tague.  Using a recurring element, the dollar bill in its many denominations, Tague teases out hidden texts.  One need only think here of the post 9/11 examples of how a $20 bill could be folded to reveal “hidden” pictures of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, as well as the word “Osama”.  Tague skewers this conspiracy theory rhetoric, highlighting both the elusive and the elisive natures of language.  I am reminded here of an episode of Batman where the caped crusader crosses out letters on a penny to create the words, “Ted Tate: Mica”, leading the Boy Wonder to find Ted Tate at the mica quarry.

What Tague realizes is that given the almost demonic regard in which paper money is held, with the constant references to its value, or lack thereof, it provides the perfect ground for constructing complex dialogues.  So, for Currency Part 2:  Means of Exchange, we encounter four examples of folded or modified money.  Tague highlights both the insidiousness of the process and the disparity of the outcomes in works such as “Unite Us.”  

Srdjan Loncar’s briefcases, each containing a million dollars, do far more to divide us than unite us.  Wielding something that looks like it came from Goldfinger, and Scarface and any hip hop video, Loncar’s briefcases highlight the relationships between money and desire.  “I really wanted to make a work using money,” Loncar explained, “but there are really strict and specific U.S. Treasury guidelines on how you can and cannot reproduce currency.  In the end,” he continues, “I realized that if I included the band as part of the work it removed the issue entirely.”  “Has anyone stolen pieces from these works?” I asked recently in his studio.  “Of course they have,” he laughed.

Loncar’s briefcases represent both the absolutely desirable and the absolutely taboo.  Who wouldn’t want a briefcase containing a million dollars in hundred dollar bills?  But who, at the same time, would be constantly afraid of its loss – stolen?  Lost?  Confiscated?  It is as if Loncar has created desirability ne plus ultra, through a copy, a simulacrum, an other.  He explains this work as part of a discourse on the value of art.  Of course, complicating the matter is that Loncar’s million dollars doesn’t actually cost a million dollars, which isn’t to say that it isn’t worth a million dollars.  It is just caught up in that oscillating relationship between stated value, use value and exchange value.  And just what is a million dollars actually ‘worth’ in any event?

For Jonathan Ferrara, the issue is not about the value of money, but about its representation.  In Shifting Dynamics, Ferrara also highlights the changing nature of the value of money.  Installed, variously, from a traditional gallery work to a pile on the floor, its shifting characteristics embody the oscillating nature of the thing it represents.  “The work was inspired in part,” Ferrara remarked recently, “by the shifting natures of the stock market, the housing market, and the idea of net worth.  One day you are worth x,” he continues, “and the next you are worth x – 40%.”  

Of course, the unspoken variable in any analysis of market worth is for our purposes the value of art.  Ferrara, as both a practicing artist and a gallerist, has the unique perspective of being both a maker and a marketer of objects that circulate as currency in the world of visual arts.  So when we encounter Shifting Dynamics as a pile on the floor, it is both an enticing pile of money and the rubble that remains after the market, whatever market it may be, has begun to  crumble under our very feet, or at least off our very walls.

For Imin Yeh, that value can be depicted precisely.  In her “Benjamin Print Project”, Yeh has created an exact relationship between the value of the works in the series and the value of on portion of the cost of her education.  As Yeh explains, “The Ben-Jam Project is a hand-pulled edition of 85 woodblock prints.  I am selling each Benjamins for one hundred dollars each.  If and when the edition sells out for a total value of $8500, the proceeds would be equal to one federal subsized Stafford Loan.”  In fact, this is the entire student loan amount that Yeh has for graduate school, so she has visually and economically represented the ‘cost’ of her graduate education.  She has also reduced participation in the retirement of this debt to $100, being the value of the dollar that would be represented if Benjamin Franklin were to appear on its face.  

So, in this moment, Yeh synthesizes face value, exchange value and cost, pegging it incrementally at $100, and overall at $8500.  This process of establishing value may seem arbitrary, for $100 seems like a small price to pay for a hand-pulled woodblock,  In many ways, this is precisely the point – that the print, capable of being reproduced in a multiple, creates the opportunity for exchange at values that become lower and lower the more times a work is created.  

Turn then to the works by Obadiah Eelcut.  Entitled Noney, these are handprinted sheets of money that can, as the artist states, be used “for the payment of any amount, anywhere.”  Its lineage lies as much in Marcel Duchamp’s Tzanck Check as it does in other forms of non-government issued printed money.  Its value derives both from its face and from its capacity to be used as a negotiable instrument.

Eelcut recognizes the disparity between perceived and actual value, writing on noney.net that “[c]urrency today is more abstract than ever.  The concept of a guaranteed standard is gone.  Money, whether in your pocket or your bank account only has value because everyone believes it does.”  In fact, Eelcut highlights the value of his money, Noney, by giving it the value of “0”.  He offers noney as something that has the power, or lack thereof, to negotiate its agreed value as itself, and in itself, at each point of exchange.  In a sense, this renders the value of Noney as both nonexistent and infinite in precisely the same moment, which is precisely Eelcut’s point.  

Eelcut is also interested in the journey Noney makes, and he invites people to send their Noney stories to him.  In a sense, this is reminiscent of the “Where’s George” currency tracking project where bills, identified by their serial numbers, can be tracked geographically.  But while the possibility of encountering a “Where’s George” bill is reasonably high, Noney’s limited printing makes the likelihood both smaller and more special.  Eelcut’s commitment to Noney as simply a means of exchange makes its existence even more compelling.

Regardless of intention, both money and representations of money exist as means of exchange.  Currency is the printed or minted expression of a shared belief in value as representational.  For Currency Part 2:  Means of Exchange, each artist calls this common delusion into question.  Readel explores the frailty of its architecture, both physically and psychologically.  Ferrara depicts is indeterminate value.  Yeh highlights its regularity, and its simplicity.  Eelcut reminds us of its opportunities for exchange, and of alternate systems thereof.  Loncar brings both humor and vice to its depiction.  And Tague takes us on an almost mystical journey through systems, meanings and messages.  

In every instance, we participate as willing believers in the value of the objects and the means by which they are exchanged.  It is here, in the realms of currency, that values are made, remade, destroyed and made again.  

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Simplicity of Multiplicity

Printmaking’s complexity, as well as its simplicity, lies is its multiplicity. The capacity for seriality and repetition places printmaking in a class of artistic practices that sits uneasily within the fine arts precisely because of this capacity. The idea of repetition being an anathema to fine arts is as common a statement as is Walter Benjamin’s observations on the aura, authenticity and originality.

I begin here because the two exhibitions that form the season of Currency are framed not by this idea, but instead by a framework that is both far simpler, and perhaps more complex at the same time.

Currency Part 1: Modes of Expression is, in many ways, a very traditional exhibition. It contains the largest collection of contemporary print works made with traditional media that has ever been exhibited at Artlab. And, in many ways, this observation was initially an impediment. My reservations stemmed in part from my own inability to critically position printmaking as a contemporary discursive practice, a reservation that was dispelled by my conversations with professor and printmaker Derek Cracco. My reticence was exacerbated by what I perceived as printmaking’s emphasis on technique – something that while not unimportant, was not and still is not my primary criterion for evaluating a work of art. Here is a contemporary dilemma, one in which I perceived that the value of a work could not be derived from its medium or methodology, but was instead wholly dependent on its concept.

I believe this belief, which I acknowledge can border on a prejudice, stems in part from the historicity that accompanies so much printmaking today. It is difficult, for example, not to consider the practices of printmaking as falling somehow outside the fine arts realm. Consider, for example, an exhibition from the early 1990s that appeared in London, Philadelphia, and Canberra, Australia. It’s title? Lasting Impressions: Lithography as Art. The title implies, by necessity, that maybe lithography (and by extension every other print medium), might somehow not really be art – it might be a commercial practice, or a practice so trapped in its industrial/commercial applications that whatever it was it would never scale the heights of the true fine arts – painting, sculpture and architecture, of course.

We know, of course, that this is not the case. We accept that the print medium has not only expanded our experiences of art, but that it has also opened its market. We see the screenprints of Andy Warhol, the transfer prints of Roy Lichtenstein, and the etchings of Kiki Smith as works that assert the primacy and the possibility of modern and contemporary printmaking.

I begin here because it is from this framework that Currency Part 1: Modes of Expression was conceived. When Derek Cracco first posited the idea, it was framed in the ways I have outlined above. I believed that there was duplicity in the concept much as there was duplicity in the idea of printmaking itself. It seems self-evident that the very process of printmaking, the creation of a copy without an original, creates something that is unique and universal in precisely the same instant.

What follows, then, is an exhibition that explores the notion that printmaking stands as a trope for the contemporary creative practice. One could read the media themselves as being subject to a single question, which became “What does it mean to express an idea through the practice of a printmaking medium today?” What is, and what do we mean, when we speak of its mode of expression?

The six artists in Currency Part 1: Modes of Expression, each have an individual approach to a medium and a methodology. Five of the six artists are represented through their emphasis on abstraction, while the sixth explores a terrain somewhere outside pure abstraction itself.

Consider, initially, the three works by Polly Apfelbaum. Each is a lithograph, a work made possible by the natural opposition of oil and water and the capacity this creates for binding ink to a plate. Apfelbaum’s iconography is both simple and familiar. She began drawing and printing flowers almost twenty years ago, initially by simply sketching some of Warhol’s flowers. This unexpected appropriation stands as indicative of printmaking itself. Apfelbaum subtly appropriated and altered one of history’s grand appropriators, recontextualizing the imagery to be delicate and intimate. The flower, as a flat block of unified color, stands as a symbol for nature far more than it actually represents nature itself. Rainbow Love, Mountain Ranch, New Mexico is a twelve-color lithograph that arrays itself vertically in terms of color but horizontally iconographically. Her flower theme, a consistent element in her works for over twenty years, provides a constant yet ever changing element that can serve to unify her works. In When Opposites Attract we see two approaches to the monochrome representation of a unified subject. On the left, we see what we might regard as the gesture, while on the right we find her marks reduced to the flat blocks of color that appear in other works. These latter icons are, in a sense, more indicative of the modernity of printmaking, while the former refer to its history.

Artist Laura Berman’s works from both her Gridrocks and her Rockpiles series consider the relationships between the form and pattern of nature and the essential flatness of printmaking. Writing on the Gridrocks, a series of relief monoprints, Berman has observed that the works are inspired by both the permanence and whimsy that cohabitate in her rock collection. Formally, the pieces are ambiguous, a series of organically shaped, multicolored shapes arrayed across a sheet of paper. Berman’s monoprints are the only ones in the exhibition. Perhaps the single most challenging element of these pieces is that in representing the rocks Berman’s reductions make their lineages more hidden. The idea of the rock as a subject creates an automatic dichotomy, one between the beauty of nature (where the rock signifies both groundedness and permanence), and the shortsightedness of the narrow minded (in which someone might be ‘dumb as a box of rocks’).

Carl Fudge’s screenprints combine aspects of historical art, contemporary technology, and traditional printmaking techniques to create works that refuse to be historicist while at the same time being historical. The significance of these works lies not in our capacity to recognize their source material, as it is not about whether or not we can locate the pieces comfortably. Instead, Fudge’s transformation of the source material into a series of pieces, which are represented by variables –x, y and z –, means that the works themselves become both singular and universal. Our expectation, or even Fudge’s assertion that the pieces actually have a historical framework hinges on our complicity in believing this to be the case. What is most challenging, and therefore most unexpected, is that screenprinting has so often been used as a medium of pop and post-pop reduction, something suited for both Warholian excess and garage band success.

More unexpectedly, Fudge’s nomenclature creates a kind of expectation that the works themselves have identifiable sources. A brief search suggests antecedents might be Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Komposition Z, or although seemingly less likely, Wassily Kandinsky’s Komposition X. Fudge’s abstractions become complex studies in pattern and repetition, multilayered works that obscure their primary sources and become something more than pure abstraction at the same time.

Kevin Haas’ Inventory series shares much with Klingberg’s Brand New View. The most representative of the works in the exhibition, Haas has still distilled his iconography to its simplest elements. The black silhouettes highlight the unexpected subtleties of design, and the works represent objects that are traditionally found at human scale. Haas’ focus on traditional printmaking techniques highlights the absolute banality of the subjects themselves. The works, intaglios on paper, capture subjects that would not seem to merit such complex treatments. In this disparity, Haas distills one of the focus areas of contemporary printmaking to its simplest elements. Whereas historically printmaking allowed members of a social structure to assert status and power, contemporary printmakers use complex techniques to represent quotidian objects. For Currency Part 1, Haas’ nine-piece grid of objects from the everyday world almost creates a taxonomy of the overlooked. Like Klingberg, the capacity of the banal becomes the celebration of unexpected beauty.

At first, both the beauty and the seemingly obsessive qualities of creation inherent in Karla Hackenmiller’s works are not necessarily apparent. Liminal Collision, an etching and spit bite aquatint, is a delicate abstraction with threads etched across the plate. The Liminal Slices combine etching and collage, adding an unexpected texture to our expectations of the print. This unexpectedness is represented through the collision and passage of information across the ground, much as the way in which the idea of the liminal and liminality address the space one inhabits between two states – between conscious and unconscious, or between asleep and awake. Hackenmiller uses traditional methods to represent universal experiences that are more often illustrated through the moving image.

Gunilla Klingberg’s Brand New View is the least traditional print work in Currency Part 1, at least to the extent that it lacks a traditional ground. Her large-scale, site-specific works turn mundane corporate identities and well-known corporate brands into large-scale rosettes or mandalas, icons for a new view of the corporate age. For Brand New View, she hybridizes American and international corporations, familiar brands like Wal-Mart or Target. The former’s oft-overlooked star becomes a repetitive signifier of success and glamour, while the latter’s ubiquitous target icon serves to create dynamism and movement. Kmart’s oversized K becomes transformed into something suggesting the Indian subcontinent, while the Northeastern supermarket chain Shoprite makes an appearance with its former logo, still in use at some locations. Klingberg’s installation makes the banal become beautiful, as the texts and embellishments become transformed into patterns suggestive of a higher value. One need only walk a short distance to the stained glass rosette window on the UAB campus to see an antecedent that is both transformed and skewered by Klingberg’s repurposing of such iconic logos. The vinyl serves to stand as one of the most contemporary approaches to printmaking. Its capacity for boundless design and endless identical representation means that it shares the process of printmaking at least as closely as it strays from printmaking’s traditional media.

For now, Currency Part 1: Modes of Expression serves as a tentative step towards reconsidering and recontextualizing contemporary printmaking. It seeks to work at the edges, to question the roles of traditional media as mark making methods in the modern world. Obviously each artist is committed to the potentials that traditional mark making provides in the printmaking context. But rather than be constrained by media, these artists take control of both the media and their histories to assert new ways of using well-understood tools.

Perhaps each of these artists explores a duality that might not have readily been apparent. Fudge and Klingberg explore the intersections of technology and tradition. Berman and Apfelbaum sit on the edges of nature and process. Kevin Haas uses the contemporary world as a means of abstraction, and printmaking as its method. And Karla Hackenmiller allows the spaces of transition, the liminal spaces, to be both reflected upon and represented through both her process and content.

Clearly contemporary printmaking allows us to process this ongoing process, that of thinking historically without historicizing it. Printmaking may be the most ubiquitous artform we encounter each day. Perhaps it is more pervasive than photography. In any event, it is time to rescue it from its consignment to history, and to understand that tradition and traditional are not the same thing. Instead, printmaking has a currency as a mode of expression that is defining our understandings of the world and its expression today.