Books

Artist Interventions as Sugarcoating

The Studio Museum in Harlem‘s Fall 2010 Studio magazine, a publication that functions as newsletter, press release and behind-the-scenes peek at the museum’s operation, doesn’t exactly look institutional. This edition is covered by a mottled, fibrous layer of paper that obscures the magazine itself. Simply emblazoned “Fences,” the cover is part of an artist intervention into the Studio Museum’s magazine by Dave McKenzie. Interspersed throughout the publication’s pages are photos by the artist

The first hint of McKenzie’s project is a bright orange sticker on the plastic wrap that binds the magazine. We are told that McKenzie’s “Fences” is the first in a series of interventions into Studio magazine. This first sticker to me is kind of like being told that there’s a prize at the bottom of a box of cereal or Cracker Jacks. In fact the form of the intervention itself, photo prints inserted into the magazine like subscription cards, doesn’t do much to distance itself from advertising. Are we compelled to open this package first for the magazine, or for the artist intervention bonus? Is the artist intervention just a cliched form of branding?

Answering that question largely depends on how good the artist doing the intervening is. Thankfully, McKenzie’s work is intriguing enough to considerably lighten up a PR heavy museum publication, but the whole experience is like getting a spoonful of sugar with your medicine — McKenzie’s inserted photos are considerably more interesting than what’s in print. That’s not altogether unexpected, but it still brings up the question of what function the artist intervention plays in its greater context. Set against Studio magazine’s overly-slick graphic design, McKenzie’s day-in-the-life photos struggle to stick out.

While the calming photos present a personal travelogue, I enjoyed the form and narrative of McKenzie’s artist statement more. I wasn’t sure where I could find an explanation of the artist’s project until I happened to take off the translucent paper covering bearing the “Fences” name — on the inside of the cover is printed a tripartite essay, hidden from view. In it, McKenzie’s writes of the intervention as a way to connect, to bridge the porous borders the artist found when traveling in Puerto Rico. The images, then, are a language to share between readers, and to connect McKenzie and his viewers to the places he has been and the experiences he has had.

“This artwork, which I am calling Fences, is an attempt to learn Chinese solely because my neighbor speaks Chinese,” McKenzie writes, exploring the boundaries between people and spaces, “I am concerned with how one chooses to act in the world and how one expects others to act.” It’s abstract reasoning for a project that’s more evocative than communicative. Are the images a universal language we can all understand? By inserting them into the magazine, is McKenzie bridging an editorial gap, a gap in expectations or a barrier to artistic transmission? I’m not really sure.

Somewhat unfortunately for the project, the photos also act as bridges between Studio magazine’s readers and the museum institution itself. The overall impact of “Fences” in context is a little too close to the toy at the bottom of the box to stand on its own as an art project, something that successful artist interventions have to accomplish. McKenzie’s own vagaries and somewhat meandering justification of the project don’t help a gesture that proves somewhat formless.

With the aid of a nice artist intervention are we expected to swallow Studio whole? McKenzie’s photos make the experience more pleasant, but the impact largely ends there. You might, as the museum suggests, use the photos as the start of an art collection. But to me that’s a little too much like collecting exhibition pamphlets and framing them.

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