Eric Doeringer, "" (2004–13), website (courtesy the artist)

Eric Doeringer, “” (2004–13), website (courtesy the artist)

CHICAGO — Anyone who has ever spent more than three consecutive hours listening to their favorite band on repeat, attempted to dress up as the lead singer, or camped out overnight to get tickets has more than just a passing interest in said band. This person, a bit fanatical in their behaviors and emotional connection with the band, is a fan. Many of these fans also happen to be artists, who are either making art about their obsessions or have “grown up” and stopped indulging in their teenage-scented fantasies.

A new exhibition titled Love to Love You, curated by Martha Joseph at Mass MoCA, examines the intersection of fandom and contemporary art. “In fan art you get rid of that critical distance that exists in a lot of contemporary art,” says Joseph. “The reason I think fan art is so timely right now is that in the ’80s, with appropriation art, that distance with the artist was crucial. I think a lot of younger artists have moved past the point of always needing that. We are seeing a lot more art that is dealing with homage and citation and re-creation of something without the postmodern distant criticality attached to it.”

The Love to Love You show is prefaced by a single quote that sums up the nature of the fan’s obsession with image: “Fandom is less like being in love than like being in love with love,” from Michael Joseph Gross’s Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame. Artists in the exhibition include Mark Bennett, Eric Doeringer, Patrick McDonough, Elissa Goldstone, Eva LeWitt, Jason Lazarus, and Jeremy Shaw, and all approach the intersection of fan art and contemporary art from a place that questions what fandom means for both pop culture and the art world, while also becoming, to an extent, part of their respective fan cultures. Many of the works have online components as well, which offer an opportunity to engage through a participatory element that’s integral to fan culture.

Mark Bennett, "Home of Elmer and Francine Fishpaw (Polyester)" (2007), india ink and graphite on vellum, 30 x 42 inches (image via ConnerSmith)

Mark Bennett, “Home of Elmer and Francine Fishpaw (Polyester)” (2007), india ink and graphite on vellum, 30 x 42 inches (image via ConnerSmith)

Eric Doeringer tackles the cult of art world celebrity surrounding Matthew Barney, creating perhaps the ultimate fan website for him,, where you can find everything from fan art, videos, and music to a blog covering all related news. For the fan who wants a pic of hunky Matthew (because he was a high school football star, of course), just check out the Matthew Barney photographs section. Need some Cremaster desktop wallpaper? That’s available, too. What a heartthrob!  Jeremy Shaw’s two-channel video installation of a super slowed-down punk concert from his youth suggests the ways that fans transcend the here and now by becoming one with the music. Mark Bennett’s architectural drawings of rooms from movies such as John Waters’s Pink Flamingos bring the viewer into the psychological space that they would normally inhabit through watching the film. In this way, his drawings parallel the tactics of Room 237, a recent documentary film about obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, who similarly plot out rooms from the movie in an attempt to uncover hidden meanings and nuances.

Elissa Goldstone and Eva LeWitt, "Playboy zine" (2011), collage and watercolor on paper, 11 x 16 inches (click to enlarge) (courtesy the artists)

Elissa Goldstone and Eva LeWitt, “Playboy zine” (2011), collage and watercolor on paper, 11 x 16 inches (click to enlarge) (courtesy the artists)

Jason Lazarus’s “The Michael Jackson Memorial Procession” was exactly what it sounds like: a performative tribute and caravan procession that traveled from Chicago, Illinois, to Gary, Indiana, Jackson’s childhood home, in the wake of his death. Patrick McDonough examines the convergence of fan art and performance art in the act of tattooing song lyrics onto his skin along with an added extreme: the artist writes in his will that whoever buys the work, which in its initial form is a photo of the inked lyrics, will also receive his tattooed skin when he dies. Elissa Goldstone and Eva LeWitt consider the blurry line between fan art and memorabilia in relation to baseball culture. Goldstone creates a quilt that charts moments of a Mets baseball game; LeWitt uses fabric collage to create a zine of baseball plays and then produces an actual zine — referencing the form’s ’90s riot grrrl roots — to give out to baseball fans.

“I came up with the idea as I was thinking about how audiences have become more active participants in culture, especially in the digital community,” says Joseph of the show’s concept. “For me, fandom was the site that really crystallizes those ideas about participation in culture, and the way that can kind of be imported into the practice of making something, whether that be an object, a video, or an event.”

Talk to any devoted fan and they will tell you that they don’t actually want to become “famous” — that the key to feeling like part of the culture is through participation. Take the Bronies fan culture, for instance: adult men and teenage boys refer to themselves as “bronies” (bro ponies) and participate in an obsessive culture around the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. They attend Bronie conventions where thousands of these men meet-up, they talk about the show on social media, they create Bronie clubs, and they collect memorabilia. They are grown-up fans of a television show meant for tween girls.

Other television shows such as the lesbionic soap-opera-esque fantasy The L-Word come with their own fans, too, who write fiction and make art and videos about the show. And then there’s quincest fan fiction, which imagines the real-life twin lesbian musicians Tegan and Sara as involved in a secret relationship. One such expression is the Tumblr quincestFTW. It’s hard to deny how uncomfortably hot it is imagining the twins in a relationship.

“In fan fiction they can be lovers, and they can be sisters,” says Joseph. “Such a realm of fantasy, things that non-fans would see as contradictory or impossible, fans don’t see as contradictory or impossible.”

Jeremy Shaw, "Best Minds Part One" (video still) (2007), two-channel video installation with original score (courtesy the artist)

Jeremy Shaw, “Best Minds Part One” (video still) (2007), two-channel video installation with original score (courtesy the artist)

As Love to Love You suggests, the creative space that both artists and fans enter when making their art isn’t all that different. And the gap between fan art and contemporary art, particularly when the latter engages with pop culture, is becoming narrower all the time. It may be closing even faster than we realize.

Stay tuned for part two of this series, when we look at two Chicago-based grown-ciswoman artists whose work operates as both fan art and contemporary art.

Love to Love You runs through January 5, 2014, at Mass MoCA (87 Marshall Street, North Adams, Massachusetts).

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...