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“Understanding something as an artwork gives rise to two possible mistakes of ontological mislocation: taking something as an artwork when it is not one, and taking something as a real object when it is an artwork.”
—Arthur Danto, “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace“
DETROIT — It seems evident to me that if you’re going to take arguably the most commonplace materials — for example, whatever can be bought for $99 or less at a dollar store — and make them the jumping-off point for an art exhibition, you’ll need to work like hell to transfigure them. This requires labor, care, attention, and devotion. And while these efforts may have been applied individually to some of the works in 99 Cents or Less — a massive group exhibition curated by Jens Hoffmann at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) — it’s disappointing to report that, from a collective standpoint, this show was basically drawn from junk, and so it remains.
Perhaps there are arguments to be made about creating commentary on our culture of consumption or the commodification and perceived value of art — but it’s exhausting to think about attempting them in defense of a show so sloppy. Works by 103 artists (billed as 99 artists, for the sake of symmetry, in a show so undisciplined it can’t even follow its own rules) are jammed into a single gallery of 6,156 square feet, creating a regrettable obstacle course of forlorn and garish objects that are afforded no individuation or breathing room. Each artist was given a budget of up to $99 to create an original work using only materials sourced from a dollar store. This is an exercise in creative problem-solving that might be appropriate for an introductory art class, but it feels a bit beneath the dignity of the head-turning lineup of out-of-town talent, not to mention dozens of Detroit’s best and brightest.
The show represents curatorial practice at its worst, and Hoffmann’s flawed conceits here are many. First, one senses, in talking to him, that prior to the moment he conceived of the exhibition, he had never before entered a dollar store. It seems to him to be a place of novelty and marvelous tackiness, of cheap manufacturing and purposelessness best viewed with ironic detachment. He described the scene to me as though I too had never been to a dollar store — let alone shopped at one — during a brief interview at MOCAD.
“[The show] was inspired by me going to a 99-cent shop in Brooklyn after doing a studio visit,” said Hoffmann, who is the senior curator at large at MOCAD, in addition to being the director of exhibitions and public programs at the Jewish Museum in New York. He was in search of a garment steamer, which of course the store didn’t have. “It was interesting, because they had so many things that were ethnically specific — I think it was a Vietnamese neighborhood — and then I started talking to other people that told me, in fact, most of the 99-cent shops are really geared toward the ethnic community that is around them.”
No kidding! It’s almost like dollar stores spring up in low-income communities, capitalizing on consumers who employ them not as ironic source material for art projects, but as the few places they can afford to shop for items that allow them to eke out a largely unsupported existence!
Second, the show was conceived as a playful way of addressing, according to Hoffmann, MOCAD’s limited budget for the exhibition slot. I suppose handing $99 to 100-plus artists each is one way of stretching a $10,000 budget, but as someone who has witnessed stalwarts of Detroit’s scrappy arts community use less than $10,000 to construct awe-inspiring works from salvaged materials — including entire sculpture parks and working windmills — and open their own gallery spaces, I think Hoffman overpaid for a crowdsourced room full of schlock. There are a few successful works, but they could not be called standouts, because nothing can stand out in the chaotic gallery space.
The concept additionally does a disservice to artists who legitimately work in this vein, not to mention the neo-primitivist movement being more conscientiously fostered by some of Detroit’s experimental art spaces. One imagines the fun that emerging local artist Shaina Kasztelan could have had, given $10,000 and the space to herself; this young woman is already a virtuoso of odd 2D and 3D works assembled from dollar store materials, but her contribution here, like most, is barely visible in the melee. I came down hard several months ago on an overcrowded group exhibition curated by Chicago’s Kavita B. Schmidt and Detroit’s What Pipeline, but that show was positively restrained compared to this 99-cent fever dream. In our interview, Hoffmann suggested that it plays with ideas of assigned value in the art world, but these are all new works commissioned expressly by the museum — none of them has a price yet. To really drive home that point, there would need to be some kind of market value already in play.
Within the works themselves, one detects a thread of critique and resistance, at least — many of the artists seem aware of the contrived nature of the show and cast subtle or overt shade in its direction. Amy Sillman’s printed shower curtain literally asks, “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?”; John Baldessari contributed three collages to the show, but left them conspicuously unsigned; Haim Steinbach converted his monetary allotment into 9,900 pennies and presented them in a plastic bucket. There are some earnest efforts and surprising Easter eggs amid the wreckage of 99 Cents or Less, but there’s also no shortage of legitimate discontent.
As Andreas Gursky (and others) have previously demonstrated, the 99-cent store is a perfectly viable place to find inspiration for impactful works of art. But a critical part of the venerated alchemy of transfiguring everyday objects involves shifting their context. As 99 Cents or Less aptly demonstrates, if you pack $10,000 worth of dollar-store material into a relatively small and crowded space … you’ve just made another dollar store. Although I’m certain the logistics of wrangling the submissions of 103 artists were no small feat for Hoffmann, the execution of the show reads as lazy, suggesting that it might behoove MOCAD to hire a full-time, locally based curator. It’s infuriating that one of Detroit’s top, salaried curatorial positions belongs to an out-of-towner who seemingly cannot bother to meaningfully engage with the city. The lack of focus is astonishing, and it shows in the final presentation.
As the saying goes: you get what you pay for.
99 Cents or Less continues at the MOCAD (4454 Woodward Avenue, Detroit) through August 6.