Friday, May 16, 2008

K Jam: Is Dealing With the Market the New Conceptual Gesture?

I attended the Kerry James Marshall lecture last night at the Phillips and was left a little perplexed and a little disappointed. I went into the talk wondering how he reconciled the great social content in his work with the workings of the market since he now paints on plexiglass, instead of linen, or canvas. ( A dealer's trick) I got an answer and was mildly disappointed with the way if was unfurled.

He talked about that "market" subject, but framed his work within this context instead of reconciling his work (virtuous) within the market (fad driven). He represented his work as something of a market strategy by repeating the mantra, "You have to compete." This undermined his career especially in the face of work that is so connected with the lives and struggles and environments of people, and how historically painting has represented these things.

I don't believe, or refuse to believe, that he really subscribes entirely to what he was saying. I tend to think that he was working something out in front of us, smashing atoms together to see what stuck. But last night's lecture seemed to usurp his whole output with these dubious market terms.

It is disheartening when someone whose work you admire, an artist who is in your Pantheon of Great Artists, comes to talk about viability in the marketplace and how that is the reality of the artist and self expression is "the easy part." We were as students, and now as grown up viewers and thinkers, reared on Kandinsky's The Spiritual In Art , Sonic Youth albums, and the biographies of great artists which among other things taught us about NOT falling in line with markets and breaking through on your own terms. Mr. Marshall is from a trully violent period in history when that thinking was literally manifest.

It is true that one must compete in the same market as Hirst Inc. and Koons Inc. I am also sympathetic to the idea of diversifying your activities, but Mr. Marshall seems to believe that it is delusional for the public and the artist to believe that self expression is the fulcrum of all this. Which at first seems disingenuous but I think I follow his logic.

To get your name in the Great Book of History you have to be as on top of the game as Michelangelo, winning all the important commissions and such. This is logical and likely true. However, to follow the spectacle industry of Damien Hirst and to think that the two are directly related is shortsighted. Not only because of the fact that Hirst, Koons, Matthew Barney all live in the world of the impossible project where without millions of dollars one cannot even complete a single work, but because the work doesn't even attempt to communicate with a real, literate though not necessarily specialized, public. While Michelangelo was communicating with both the literate papacy as well as the sometimes illiterate masses.

Mr. Marshall did have some important things to say though about making and desiring a legacy. He spoke about his feelings that there are no Black representations across the historical spectrum of time in academia. I suppose he was anticipating that the audience could make those connections without mention by him, or that that message could be found in other interviews or Art21 episodes. His avoidance of the obvious connection his work has with these big ideas, and the larger historical link his paintings have with Fragonard, Piero, Poussin (even Charles White got an incidental mention!) was what I and, judging by the Q & A afterward, the audience was there to hear. Nonetheless he did say that to get in that "Great Book of History" you have to understand the logic of History's language and apply it to your own time and your own endeavors.

All things considered his show at Jack Shainman opens on May 22nd should be great. I will see it and love it regardless of where he tries to situate himself in the market. The paintings are unbelievable!

No comments: