But then the pandemic hit, followed by quarantine, and everything stopped.
Until galleries and museums learned to adapt. And soon email invitations to virtual exhibition after virtual exhibition floated in. Most of these shows were sad; the intrusion of technology made the work feel further removed, less real, more a reminder of what we couldn’t experience than an experience of the art itself. I started thinking about the medium of virtual exhibits. I looked at the paintings in my studio with no one to see them and nowhere to go, and I thought about my strange predicament as the artist who was also, in a way, the gallerist: I had to sell the work, to find some way to show it.
The problem is the prompt.
I decided to make a virtual exhibition. But instead of focusing on the paintings alone, I imagined a show that was a piece unto itself—something reflecting on our current situation and how the sudden full stop of business as usual forced us all to look at ourselves in new ways. I also wanted to address dilemmas specific to the art world—those we are confronted with as artists, gallerists, and audiences—and the fluidity of our realities and the roles we inhabit within them. I consider the act of making paintings, conventional paintings, as inextricably linked to questions regarding the value of art and how we relate to the market—to selling, reselling, capital, and investment. To me, paintings feel more tied to capitalist structure than the work I usually make. Unique and irreproducible, they are commodities in a way that a film, for instance, is not.
And so I set up a white box gallery space in my studio. I hung the show. I made two sculptures to represent the artist/gallerist and artist/viewer, who would act as my avatars. Over the course of the first year of the pandemic, I animated the space and the characters. I developed the language and acoustic space for the piece. When I felt moved, I sang into my phone, then took that audio, cut it up, digitally manipulated it, and combined it with the animation. I thought of it as a pandemic Umbrellas of Cherbourg, contemplating the art world in sung dialogue, acted out on a stylized set. In my scenario, it is sometimes hard to know who is whom and what is what. That’s by design; in the art world, we often fill many roles. And here I am the one who is selling this work, I am the one who is looking at this work, I am the one who is creating this work.
The art market is built on a capitalist structure. To be considered successful, an artist must sell and then sell at higher and higher prices. The worth of the work is defined at auction. Wealth becomes the measure. But what sells, why, and for how much? Who can afford it? Where did that money come from? Who is hurt in the process, and are we all complicit? Opportunity has allowed me movement through the art world, from apartment gallery to museum. Commercial and established institutions, I find, often work at odds with the issues addressed by the art on display. I wonder, does financing space for artists who challenge their ethics grant sponsors absolution for the ways they create their wealth? Does political art in this context become a “moral laundry” service? Is it penance for the rich or just a way for us to pay the bills?