Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Direct Connect Denver

Direct Connect Denver's "What If..." as seen at one of 3 venues, GroundSwell Gallery.
Late summer of 2013, Don Fodness and Sabin Aell approached me and my partner (at GroundSwell Gallery), Danette Montoya about putting together a project for artists in Denver.  The basic goal was to create a project for as many artists as we could manage to collaborate with other artists internationaly.  Almost right away, we four felt the awesome energy of people who work well together.  Not only did we begin to organize and define this project, "What if..." but we also began to organize and define ourselves as Direct Connect Denver (DCD).
Might as well make a logo! Should I put in a TM?
The purpose of our new group began to unfold as this:  to create opportunities for ourselves and other artists in Denver and to connect directly with artists, galleries, and general culture in other cities and/or countries through our art work.  The realization we've all made was that most of the events defining success in our careers have been connections, relationships, and experiences with other people in our field.  Read about DCD and "What if..." in Westword and at Colorado Public Radio's website where Danette was interviewed about the project. 

Direct Connect Denver is now our four person team devoted to creating one project per year for  artists to engage with other artists/galleries/communities nationally and internationally.  Our first project, "What If..." just opened on March 14th in Denver, CO, USA and March 15 in Berlin, Germany with over 100 participating artists.

The framework of the project was this:  Sabin Aell catalyzed the relationship with Neurotitan Gallery in Berlin to do a collaborative art swap with artists in Denver.  Each team, DCD in Denver and Neurotitan in Berlin, enlisted 53 artists/art-groups to participate in the project.  Each artist/art-group was asked to pose a "what if...?" question and then was paired randomly with another artist/art-group in the opposite city.  The "what if..." questions were swapped and having receive the question, each artist/art-group had to begin an art work in response to that question.

 I was one of those artists and the question that I posed was, "What if I finally took off my East-Coast-Conservative-Protestant baggage and got naked?"  My partner was Xueh Magrini and her question to me was, "What if all is just an illusion?"  Xu's artwork, as seen on her website, was delightful to see because, being randomly paired, her work fit right into my hope for this project: to let loose! 
If you know my work, you know that I'm not prone to work loosely with pastels and I tend to draw very formally, so you can see what of this collaborative work was made by Xu (though elaborated upon by me) and you can see where my style works in.  I felt that this artwork was an invitation to keep working on artwork for myself (as I have been learning to do in the last year), but to also make it more vulnerable by showing it outside of my studio (or this blog).

All 53 artists in Denver and all 53 artists/art-groups in Berlin got to work responding to their questions knowing that their work would be finished by the asker.  After a month of working, all of the artwork (in Denver) was due to GroundSwell Gallery so that we could ship the artworks to Berlin for the artists there to finish and then exhibit at Neurotitan.  Likewise, Neurotitan had to collect all of their artists works and send them to Denver.  (Organizational note:  Always send all the artwork in one package, one time if you can.  Sending multiple packages on different schedules does not seem to make a schedule run smoothly.  Repeat: Ship everything at once.)  In late January, early February, artists received the artworks that their collaborator started in response to the question they had asked.  Everyone had to work on responding to his/her own question AND responding to another artist's interpretation of that question.  Finally, all of the artworks in Denver were exhibited at Hinterland (Sabin's gallery on Walnut St.), Showpen (Don's gallery/artists' residence on 9th & Santa Fe) and at GroundSwell Gallery.
Left: Sara Guindon & Sophia Martineck, Center: Andrew Huffman & Vela, Right: Travis Hetman & Johann B├╝sen.  These 3 artworks each became an enmeshed synthesis of the collaborators' styles.  Sara and Sophia's styles seem one in the same, Andrew Huffman transformed Vela's (barely discernible now) gnome into his more rare stream-of-consciousness work and Travis had to break from his negative-space and work within Johann's frenetic overload of imagery.  In my opinion, these are awesome collaborative efforts.  (click on this image to see it larger...  find the gnome?)

In my experience I found it interesting that I had had an idea in my mind of how I would respond to my own question, but when I received my artwork from Xu, I had to re-think, re-imagine my visual "answer" to my own question.  As an organizer of this project, having looked at everyone's original questions, it became evident that some asked "what if..." with a plan for themselves and others asked as though "anything can happen!"  I can't say for sure, but I imagine the latter askers may have felt more free as they attempted to work on another artist's work and deal with the existential problem of answering our own questions.  Of course there is also the issue of working right on another artist's work.  I applaud the artists who boldly negotiated this problem for themselves and created excellent works while dismantling (ahem... destroying...) their partner's input.  I think it was important for artists to see this as a project where it was appropriate and expected that we just do-what-we-have-to-do to make an artwork. 
Left: Tyler Beard & Andres Villareal, Right: Jeffrey King & Nat Hamon.  Both Tyler and Jeffrey dismantled or destroyed their partner's work as a means to making work that is their own.  I point out that their partner's work is collaborative in that it is used as the medium for the artwork seen here.

Finally, I'll just say that this project has been a joy to co-create because of the co-creators.  The best parts about working with Danette at GroundSwell Gallery for the past 3 years have been our ability to lay everything out honestly, our naturally mutual objectives and our equal willingness to work hard with attention to the balance between our workloads.  Working with Don and Sabin on this project has resulted in a similar working style and the four us seem as surprised as we are delighted and motivated to continue working together.  Group projects are not often this easy and fair.

Direct Connect Denver plans to document this project carefully and create a pdf book as well as a print-to-order book of the artworks.  DCD also plans to do another project in 2015.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Thanks for saying so outloud Steven Zevitas.

My people.  Christian Butler measuring our gallery at Left and Danette Montoya working some audio at Right.  We do it because we love the artists and their work.
I may be small potatoes in the art world, but I've been thinking about the problem of the art-market often, I talk about it with people as soon as it seems they're listening, and I don't want to shut up about it.  It is a relief to read this message from art dealer,  Steven Zevitas.  I love art.  I love making art, talking about art, looking at art, thinking about art...  I want art to be the hallowed cultural definer that it can be - and I want it to be healthy and strong.  Below, the whole message as it was sent to me. If anything, skim through to the last third and read the messages to Artists, Art Critics, Museums, Art Magazines, Dealers, etc.


Steven Zevitas

I had a Jerry Maguire moment last night. I couldn't sleep, so I decided to write. The following thoughts are a bit of a ramble - a sketch really - and I leave it to others to expand on the dialogue. If I had a business manager, I'd probably be told that for someone who makes part of their living as an art dealer, putting these words "out there" is not a particularly bright move. If I had a boss, he might fire me. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I don't have either.

If you were to walk through the aisles of any one of the dozens of art fairs that now take place globally on an almost weekly basis, you would get the sense that the art world is a happier place than Disney World. Big art, big artists, big dealers and big money play their roles in a hypnotic and well-rehearsed production, and toothy smiles abound. Yet this intoxicating spectacle is just the most public manifestation of a problem in the art world that has become increasingly obvious over the past decade: more and more, the cart is pulling the horse.

The horse in question is, of course, aesthetic production and the individuals and institutions that assiduously guard its sanctity. The cart is, at least on the surface, money - and lots of it. Or is it? After all, money does not have motivation or intent, people do. I would  argue that the cart is actually the insidious forces that have, over several decades, narrowed the gap between art and financial instruments, and in doing so have forced art to submit to criteria once reserved for commodities. Money is simply the scapegoat for a problem that is pervasive and systemic.

There was a time when art critics, art historians and curators held substantial sway as to what constituted significant contemporary art. They rode the horse, and collectors and art dealers happily went along for the ride. These days, curators are too often hamstrung by the demands of museum directors who are focused on attendance figures, and board members, who can have very real (non-aesthetic) interests in seeing that certain exhibitions take place. Critics have suffered an even worse fate. Those that are left have been neutered, and can seem more like public relations specialists than critical thinkers. Even the most influential, such as Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz - both tremendous art critics - can barely move the consensus needle these days. The last time I saw that magic Greenbergian trick successfully performed is when Saltz's 2002 review of a show by Dana Schutz, it can be said, genuinely influenced an artist's rapid ascendency. That was twelve years ago.

"Consensus" may be the most important word in the art world today. Because of the patent impossibility of objectivity in the judgment of art, the notion of consensus has slipped into the vacuum. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but apparently the art world does even more. So much so, in fact, that the word "consensus" has come to be all but synonymous with another art-world favorite, "quality." Their combined weight, piled on layers of subjectivity, has, over time, exerted enough pressure to create a very strange substance: virtual objectivity. You can't see the stuff, but like theoretical dark matter, all evidence suggests that it is there, and that it accounts for a lot of the contemporary art world's mass. It is the substance that turns young artists into overnight superstars, dealers into mega-dealers, and collectors into tastemakers. It keeps the cart in front of the horse and it drives the art market. Unfortunately, it is highly unstable.

The art world and the art market are not the same thing, even though the general-interest press now, tellingly, uses the terms interchangeably. The latter should be subject to the former, but somewhere along the way there was a coup. When the public now thinks about the art world - if they think about the art world at all - the first thing that will likely come to mind is the unfathomable sums of money spent for a painting at the latest auction. I don't think there is any way to overstate the exclusion that this narrative creates.  It moves art closer to commodity status in the collective consciousness, and in doing so, effectively tells the 99% that there is no point in thinking about the art world, or art itself for that matter. The message is clear: If art equals money, and you are not wealthy, then art is not for you.

None of this is to say that the art market is a bad thing. The dealers, collectors, auction houses and other players in the market all perform functions that are necessary if artists are to have a fair shot at making a living from their work. But the way the market is now structured is problematic. The top end is not the problem. The fact that the super-wealthy spend fortunes on works by artists such as Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol is not particularly disturbing, as those artists are firmly ensconced in the art-historical canon. When it comes to artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, well, all I can say is, Good luck with that. The trouble really starts with the prices being paid for works by mid-career artists such as Christopher Wool and Richard Prince, and, of greater concern and with more frequency, for the work of emerging artists.

I am all about artists making money, but when a small group of mostly young white male artists such as Joe Bradley, Jacob Kassay, Lucien Smith and Oscar Murillo start to sell work for six-digit amounts, it should raise a lot of red flags. (And I am in no way making critical judgments about these artists and their work - Joe Bradley, for one, may very well turn out to be a generational talent.) The age of the "ism" is over and in its place we have the age of instant "consensus" and the other big art world C word, "context." Right now the "consensus" is that serious art involves raw canvas, a smattering of paint, possibly an exposed stretcher bar, and a "who the fuck cares if it looks done" attitude - some of this work is quite good, by the way. The "context" that this work is presented in is the hippest galleries and art fairs in the world. And collectors who do more listening than looking are lapping it up in large amounts and at absurd prices.

Expressed in the parlance of finance, all of these artists are trading at multiples that, if applied to a publicly traded company such as Google, would make the price of that stock more than $10,000 a share. When someone purchases a Lucien Smith painting for $150,000, they are effectively saying that they feel this asset has such potential for future growth that it warrants such a present price. (For finance geeks, it is a bet that this asset will generate enough future cash flows at a given discount rate to make the asset's net present value a positive number.) All of this sounds very sophisticated, but at the end of the day, and in common English, the only justification for paying such money for emerging artists is speculative. And we all know what happens to a market when too many speculators get involved.

Careless dealers are partly to blame. Auction houses, which can quickly establish a secondary market for an emerging artist, are more to blame. If there is one certainty demonstrated by modern economic history, it is that all things are cyclical. In the end, the music will stop, and when it does, chairs will be scarce. The results will be a decrease in art fairs, gallery closings, and, unfortunately, a lot of artists with ruined careers and no place to exhibit their work. Some, like that wise sage Paul Clemenza, would say:

        "These things gotta happen every five years or so, ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood. Been ten years since the last one. You know, you gotta stop them at the beginning. Like they should have stopped Hitler at Munich, they should never let him get away with that, they was just asking for trouble.

Maybe they do. But certainly the severity of such a crisis could be reduced if the art world's internal structure were in better shape.

I think that art constitutes the single most important output of a given culture at any point in time and, therefore, that collecting art is a deadly serious enterprise. These days, collecting has become a form of entertainment and a competitive blood sport, where the quest for access has replaced the desire for aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nourishment. And so, naturally, the things that are the hardest to access have become the most valued (there is the old horse being pulled along again). In my life as a dealer, I am lucky to have worked with a number of collectors who are passionate about art and who dedicate a large quotient of their typically busy lives to it. Then, there is the new breed that all dealers are now more than familiar with. If you are at an art fair, they are easy to identify, because they spend more time examining resumes than looking at art. They also tend to herd together and gravitate toward the same things, which has resulted in a shocking number of private collections that are virtually interchangeable. Let me put it simply: Going to an art fair or gallery and spending a lot of money on the latest "hot" artist is not collecting, it is trophy hunting. When the art world slows down, these individuals will be the first to jump ship, as their motivations for interacting with art in the first place will have evaporated with the value of their art portfolios.

So, how do we fix the mess? Needless to say, this is a complex question. The best I can do is offer counsel directed to some of the art world's key stakeholders:

To artists I say: Keep making art and make it because you have a deep NEED to, not because you WANT to. Follow your own unique visions and not current consensus. You are the bedrock.

To auction houses I say: Cut the bullshit. You are not art dealers, and all the glossy sale catalogues and preview exhibitions in the world will never change that. Refuse to auction works by artists who have emerged from the studio less than three years ago. The few shekels that this reckless practice puts toward your bottom line are far outweighed by the instability you create in the art market.

To art magazines I say: No one cares about another analysis of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, except for the two dozen people on the planet who actively trade in their work. Expand your editorial coverage beyond the same forty-or-so preapproved "art stars." Allow exhibition reviewers to take stances that might be in conflict with the interests of your advertising department. And editors, encourage your writers to communicate in a language that can be understood by more than the few who are fluent in artspeak. My favorite section of Artforum has always been the ads, and my guess is that I am not alone.

To museums I say: Expand your boards to include a wider demographic. Wealth and the ability to fundraise should not be the primary determinant of board eligibility. I understand that a stable financial house is essential to museums, but when stability necessitates an oligarchy you have a big problem, and should begin to question the viability of the institution.

To art collectors I say: Think for yourselves. Art collecting is a personal journey, not a social exercise. There is no such thing as a bad acquisition, if the motives and desires that lead to it are genuine. Support your local art communities, as there is likely a lot going on that is worthy of your support.

To art dealers - including myself - I say: Work with artists you believe in, and do the shows you want to do. Refuse to do business with anyone whose motives are even remotely speculative. Spend as much time educating as you do trying to sell. Always remember that it is artists first, everyone else second. Because the silver paintings are selling well, don't ask your artist to make more.

And to the art world I say. . . . You had me at hello.

New American Paintings magazine is a juried exhibition-in-print, and the largest series of artist competitions in the United States. Working with experienced  curators, New American Paintings reviews the work of thousands of emerging artists each year. Forty artists are selected to appear in each bi-monthly edition, many of whom go on to receive substantial critical and commercial success. Additional content focuses on the medium of painting, those who influence its direction, and the role contemporary painting plays within the art world. Visit New American Paintings for more information. Steven Zevitas Publisher, New American Paintings