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How I Think Maybe An Art Gallery Can Help Save My Life
The first lesson was, it takes a lot of work to open an art show. It isn’t just “hang some work and open the doors.” So the first thing one learns is that an enormous amount of love and labor is put into the process of bringing art into the world. The contemporary art world is a confusing place, with misdirection, misinformation, smoke, mirrors, and characters spread across continents. It’s full of stars posing as failures, failures posing as stars, and unoriginal simpletons in artist hangouts wearing paint smeared blue jeans smoking camels. It’s talk and talk and talk and then money, more money and even more money. It’s conspiracy and insider-y, it’s worse than high school cliques. And when you find art you actually like it’s hard to really know what it is you’re buying. In museums we see art that is important, we know that because we’ve heard the names a million times … Picasso, Johns, Warhol. But, at some point those names were just names, just working artists hanging in contemporary galleries or wherever artists hang out. It’s hard to know when or how they became brands but they did.
About a year ago I started reviewing art in Los Angeles on my blog, Art Bystander. Why did I start doing this? Because when I visited the galleries I couldn’t find a critical word about what I was seeing. People seemed to like the work blindly and they spoke about it as if it were the prettiest girl in school. You know the one, the total bitch who wouldn’t talk to you except when she needed a lab partner or someone to help her understand Shakespeare. This problem isn’t just with the state of criticism in the Los Angeles art world, it’s music and books now too. It is as if anyone who puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard are more fanboy then critic. It’s one thing to be enthusiastic, loving, and caring for a medium you believe in deeply, it’s another to be so blinded by your affection that you can no longer be honest with yourself and your audience. It’s about liking something solely based on hoping that you will be liked back.
My solution was to start a scathing blog. I kept it up for a little bit, and got some very nasty emails and comments from people who thought I wasn’t being fair, or that I was wrong. How can an opinion on the aesthetics of a pregnant woman peeing in the woods be wrong? It can in the art world. After a while, I just got sick of going. Of seeing the same scenesters dressed like retired sailors in the 1950s nodding their heads in agreement like zombies satisfied with rabbit brains. I just couldn’t stomach it anymore, I wanted to see a show so stripped down, so raw, that I could both afford the art and also let that art speak for itself in it’s raw, unadulterated state.
At Home in the Gallery
So I opened a gallery in my house with artists who think it’s funny to laugh at the art world. Or better yet, with artists who I believe as a curator/dealer, inherently understand that art is as much about enabling people, even if for a moment, to turn their heads and see something that they couldn’t have imagined … or something that seems self-evident after it is revealed. It’s about learning, expanding, seasoning, tasting, and being displaced. It is about being distanced and embraced simultaneously, while experiencing some sort of mental harmony and physical stimulation.
And that’s what Trashed is. It started as an idea on Twitter, a theoretical question, what is art and who should be allowed to own it? An artist of fine paintings, sculptures and installations is obsessed with price-point, the desire to survive solely on the prospect of making and selling more art.
Then there are collectors — fat-pocketed, corporation-owning, skinny wife-having, trust funded, art world insiders who invest in canvas and bronze. Do some collectors secretly do a dance the day an artist in his collection passes on? Is it wrong if he does? They want the critics to like what they bought, they will buy you dinner, get you drunk, and pretend to be a slick, liberal party goer un-phased by drugs, public sex, decadence, and secret trysts. That’s their image and I love that image. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people.
So, beyond that, we began with the simplest of ideas, send us your trash, we’ll put it up, slap a price tag on it and see if some idiot will buy it. Also, we’ll send a press release to major critics and bloggers here in Los Angeles and dare them to come, to tear us apart. They should tee off on us, we are bastardizing their system. We are showing works of art that couldn’t possibly be considered art, right? Nothing we’re doing is going to ever be in a museum because we’re nobodies, we have no money and no idea what is going on … and because it’s trash. It’s brushes and paint cans, marker on loose-leaf pages, cutouts from sketchbooks, figurines and urinals, a map and some emails informing a lover that her services will no longer be needed, and waste from large installations made of waste.
Art as Community
Trashed was rebelling against these art world ideas. Art, to us, is about fun and community. When I graduated college I went around New York City with two painters, we were always frenetic about art, writing, and drawing incessantly. Every night we would meet at a bar in the Village or in Williamsburg and would trade poems and drawings for pitchers of beer. I wanted that feeling again, art as community, as poetry, and as something that trumped convention.
And as the show grew closer, some artists were embarrassed at the prospect of showing with us, or that their work wasn’t art. Critics refused to respond or simply wished me luck, but were unable to attend. One gallery owner came by the morning of our opening, spent twenty minutes looking at the work, congratulated me, and said it looked great. He was very nice. No one else came, not the curator who I spoke with, not the Los Angeles Times, not the counter culture magazine LA Weekly, not Flavorpill, Gawker Artists, Coagula Magazine, ArtInfo, ArtObserved, LACityBeat, or LA CitySearch. TryHarderArt didn’t come and take sexy glossy art show photos and the art bloggers of LA, who seem to cover everything, were a no show. We aren’t on La Cienega or in Bergamont Station and we weren’t attracting the celebrities. We didn’t rent an abandoned TV studio like Mr. Brainwash of Exit Through the Gift Shop fame and hang gaudy quotes with pictures of our bold work. We bought wine and beer, we got burgers and hot dogs, and we fired up the barbecue. One of the artists, Jennifer Faist, brought coleslaw and two others, Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida, got on Gchat and Skype in Brooklyn and spoke with people coming through the show.
Did it go smoothly? Sure. Did we sell some work? A little. Did we make waves? It’s hard to say. One art fan came on his break from work, looked through the show, smiled, thanked me profusely for putting the show on, and then tweeted about it later. We had one blogger come through, she stayed a while, engaged with the work, and she seemed to enjoy herself. A journalist from New York called me this morning and wanted to speak with me about the show, the banality of Los Angeles, and the Silver Lake crowd specifically.
But, sadly, the regulars I see in Culver City, China Town, the Miracle Mile, and in Bergamont Station stayed away. Maybe it’s because we’re in a house tucked halfway up the hill in Silver Lake. Maybe it’s because our gallery has no name and no footprint amongst the art fans of LA. Or maybe people were scared of it. Maybe if we succeeded something about the way they do things will feel false. Because at the core of what we’re doing at ByStander and with our first show, Trashed, is to challenge the infrastructure that is currently in place. How many times have you heard someone complain about a price tag at an art show? Been afraid to admit that you don’t understand what you’re looking at? How often do you look at something bloated, banal, and disrespectful to the spectator with the fear that admitting this fact would end in embarrassment or alienation? Do you feel like maybe the heart is missing these days? Even just a little?
Well, Trashed and ByStander presented heart. And our house was filled with friends and strangers, walking through my front door without ringing