Galleries can be imposing places. The vast white cube designed to imbue work with importance often misses the mark in engulfing work within a sterile blank space. Mark Dagley’s current show at Minus Space makes me think that he is wary of this. By no means a lightweight, Dagley has put together a show that lives and breathes vitality and importance due to his consideration of the space rather than the other way around.
Before even entering the gallery, one is immediately confronted by three site specific paintings leaning up against the wall from a set of carefully considered aluminum blocks. The forms of the paintings utilize the capacity of the gallery space not only in monopolizing the wall space, but also in their strikingly animated and engaging color selection.
OWS: One Year Later
By Madeline Jones
Artists have always occupied a peculiar social position. For generations, penniless artists who spent their days languishing in garrets received their only hot meals at the houses of rich patrons; today the edgiest of art students can aspire to no greater accolade than the sale of their finals show to Saatchi.
The visual arts are more susceptible to these divisive politics than any other art form: a writer can earn his dinner by selling his work to lots of people, but the artist’s work is not reproducible: someone must pay for it in full. Perhaps this is why, in the aftermath of the banking crisis and the Occupy protests, the response in the arts has been much more visible than the response in art: talk and tweets of an Occupy Art Basel came to nothing, whereas around the same time, two nominees dropped out of the prestigious TS Eliot for poetry, in protest over the sponsorship of investment management firm Aurum, and a few months later, filmmakers presented a petition to the organizers of the Tribeca film festival protesting the sponsorship of Brookfield Properties, the owners of Zucotti park who had, according to them, played a role in the eviction of protestors from it.
One year into the Occupy movement (it celebrated its first birthday on September 17), reactions from artists has been lower in profile. But there is an artists’ movement within Occupy, and it is addressing the art world’s money problems head on.
Even within Occupy, the money issue can turn things sour: the earliest OWS show, “No Comment,” which was hurriedly organized last October in the historic JP Morgan building, ended in confusion, after the terms offered participating artists were summarily (though legally) changed by the contractor, with OWS and a 9/11 charity also intended to benefit receiving a slimmer cut of the profits than anticipated. Occupy bit their tongues after that debacle. This summer, the Illuminator, a van rigged with a strong projector which cast anti-capitalist messages onto the sides of buildings as it trundled around the city, was the centre of a similar controversy. Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s, funded the project but grew edgy when it became apparent that the van was being used to spotlight causes other than OWS and demanded custody of the vehicle back. After giving up the vehicle after a legal battle, the Illuminator’s team remarked in a testy statement that they hoped that, “moving forward, Cohen and other funders will approach movement activists as true partners and equals.” But the project did not pin their ambitions on this hope, resorting to crowd-sourcing the funds for a new van, on the website Kickstarter.
Crowd-sourcing seems the obvious way to get around the problem of trying to make art for the 99% when the only person who can afford to pay you to do so is a member of the 1%. Molly Crabapple, one of the most well-known artists associated with Occupy, has funded two art projects for the movement that way: a five day installation, Molly Crabapple’s Week in Hell and Shell Game, nine large paintings (still in progress) about the Financial Meltdown. The pleas for funds were wildly successful—in total more than $30,000 over the original targets was donated. Donors get pins and, if they have been especially generous, lunch with the artist. But Crabapple’s pieces represent the danger of sourcing money from a crowd: her paintings are attractive and effectively make her political point (they are essentially political cartoons, complete with Fat Cats and Big Fish) but are hardly challenging or arresting in the way that art generally aims to be. In fact, Crabapple’s funny animals, doe-eyed, wasp-waisted women, and goth-lite aesthetic are prime candidates for funding sourced from the masses, since they look like nothing so much as mass-produced art, like illustrations on greeting cards in high-end stationers. Painting for a wide audience brings with it problems no less significant than those that arise when painting for a single donor.
Paul McLean is an artist and one of the organizers of Occupy with Art (OwA), which formerly operated as a working group of the central OWS movement. He is intelligent and passionate about the politics of art, and speaks fast and at length of the difficulty of getting things done in a movement as fluid and yet as bureaucratic as Occupy. He also remarks that a lot of Occupiers don’t get art, are not interested in art: about a million dollars flowed through the coffers of the OWS movement, of which less than $20,000 went to fund movement-based art.
For McLean the problem is not just the wealth of collectors, but the political implication of arts funding. Last October a splinter group of Occupy targeted what McLean calls a ‘nice non-profit’, Artists Space: the group failed effectively to communicate what occupying an organization dedicated to supporting emerging artists had to do with fighting toxic capitalism, and the affair ended up an embarrassment to the movement. But the politics of arts funding is an issue: aside from the fact that museums and galleries were among the enthusiastic participants in the auction-based securities market, and suffered directly when it failed, most arts organizations are non-profits, and thus rigorously restricted in the political statements they can make. Furthermore Mayor Bloomberg has donated $32 million to the arts over the last couple of years: it is difficult for radicals to accept that the arts world in which they are immersed is pay-rolled by a man whom they see as the facilitator of a capitalist culture they detest. For McLean, Bloomberg is buying silence from the people best equipped to shout.
In a movement often criticized for failing to come up with concrete propositions, OwA is scrupulous in trying to do something positive. For me the most heartening art project associated with the movement was Occupy’s Wall Street to Main Street, in Catskill, NY. Stores on the town’s Main Street offered their windows, and both local and NYC-based artists exhibited their works, events, and exhibitions over three months. After the attention which the venture brought to the town, a factory which had been in the process of being foreclosed for three years was finally bought out—talks are currently underway about using the space for the public good. Catskill provides a great model of what the art of the 99% should do: bring people together and lift communities.
It is the striving for something different which marks out the Occupying artists’ work. The movement’s journal, Novad, is filled with Deleuzian talk of new, non-hierarchical systems. The talk is necessarily vague: it’s extremely difficult to envision a space outside of corporate values when one exists in a world that is wholly governed by them. And the movement hasn’t produced any great art yet: but the attempt at creation seems important.
Occupy with Art’s latest venture has been an exhibition at the BJ Spoke gallery in Huntington, LI. The exhibit typified Occupy’s forays into art, in that it experimented with funding (this time taking the model of a food co-operative as inspiration) and was self-regarding (dominated by Stephen Byrnes photographs from Occupy protests), but an interesting theme emerged. In the gallery’s window, an animation flashed grainy images: round blobs—like cells—clouds of smoke, circular scribbles, a vaguely biological kaleidoscope. Circles dominated the exhibition: from Paul Mclean’s Bauhaus-esque stark black and white abstract of circles on circles, resembling a clockwork mechanism, to Konstant’s spiral transposed over what looked like a print of a Renaissance woodcut. On OwA’s blog, the eastern mandala is a popular motif, and Jeremy Bold, another key player in the movement, has posted a video, entitled I don’t care of a hula hoop illuminated with coloured lights, spinning so that they meld into one. The circle seems then to have emerged as an important motif in the art of Occupy, for a world that seems depressingly broken, a symbol of equality, wholeness, perfection, inclusion, and, of course, revolution.