Installation View of “Is This Free?” at Nurture Art. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

I spend most of my time looking at and thinking about art. (Full disclosure, I work in a gallery in Chelsea.) Like most young people who work in a gallery, being in the art world almost guarantees that I will never actually be able to own what I spend most of my time thinking, writing and talking about. It is important to remind one’s self that big, expensive bling-sculpture is not the be all end all. There are many an artist who dedicate themselves to subverting the commodification of their own work. While the value of art as message versus commodity was popularized by Fluxus and Mail art progenitors of the 1970s I have to constantly remind myself that this tradition continues to have a strong following today. Countless artists all over the world are still contributing to publications, self-publishing zines and affordable prints and making work for wide distribution at little or no cost to those who would consume it. It is nice to see this topic being given proper treatment in a public forum. The current exhibition at Nurture Art, Is This Free?, addresses the topic with a three-part summer exhibition. The group show has had three iterations over the last month, with it’s third opening on August 31. Rather than three separate exhibitions, the curators have chosen to add additional works on top of the previous incarnation.

Installation View of “Is it Free?”

Rather than create a stockpile of takeaway freebies, the exhibition explores how artists incorporate concepts of generosity, property and entitlement into their works. The exhibition is curated thematically with one major distinction; green, yellow and red dots indicate if a work is free, free with conditions or not to be touched. Though it might seem counterintuitive to curate an exhibition with works that are for sale or unavailable to the public, the effect is more helpful than not.

The exhibition provides a historical context. One of Jenny Holzer’s Truism posters hangs across the room from where a relatively flimsy artbook by Laurence Weiner lies on a shelf. These pieces provide an example of how conceptual artists in the 1970s used cheaply produced free materials in order to get their ideas, messages and names out to the larger public. That these pieces have become very real commodities is perhaps ironic but doesn’t negate their power altogether. Having a Jenny Holzer that was once free but is now behind glass is unavoidable if you want to provide a historical context, but it still sticks in my craw a little bit.

The whole thing is saved from awkwardness by a sense that one generation, beguiled by it’s own success has passed the punk rock mantle of DIY free shit onto its predecessors. In some circumstances this is more literal than others. Eric Doeringer has re-created two fabric paintings by conceptualist Daniel Buren quoting an instance in which the artist makes specific reference that anyone can re-produce his paintings — essentially they belong to everyone. Cesare Pietroiusti’s free, takeaway multiples consist of abstract ink splatters on high quality paper. The editon of 1,000 is adorned with a hand typed admonition that while each piece is free, its ownership must be transferred to any who asks for it.

Julie Tores, “Is This Free?” (2012), secret artwork, screen printed wrapping, notebook, dimensions variable

While I appreciate that gesture, is it more than navel gazing? I don’t know. Daniel Bejar’s “22 11 .517” presents a more substantive alternative for the art hungry visitor. His postcard is one of a series celebrating Google Earth views from random spots across the world. His italicized text reeds “Greetings From” and features an image of flat, limitless ocean and seems to question the role of technology and information in our daily lives. We aren’t sure if being able to look into the middle of the ocean is good or bad, but we are glad to be given the opportunity to wonder.

Julie Torres brings us into the era of the sweepstakes, her piece “Is This Free?” uses the promise of a free, unseen painting — the artist will give the piece to whomever she deems has the best secret — to  prompt visitors to write secrets in a notebook. While the breadth of this exhibition is certainly expansive to the point of distraction it is certainly carefully considered and thoughtful. This exhibition is worth a good hard look.

Is This Free? runs until September 9 at Nurture Art (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn).