Guilt Complex: Selling Painting by the Square Foot

G.T. Pellizzi, “The Red and the Black” (2013), installation view, oil-based enamel on plywood (all images courtesy Y Gallery)
G.T. Pellizzi, “The Red and the Black” (2013), installation view, oil-based enamel on plywood (all images courtesy Y Gallery)

One of the most cleverly paradoxical shows to come around in a long time is G.T. Pellizzi’s The Red and the Black at Y Gallery, an installation of plywood walls built out a couple of feet into the exhibition space and painted entirely in — you guessed it — red and black.

The color scheme is only the beginning. If the title brings to mind Le Rouge et le Noir, the 1830 novel by Stendhal, the definer of the Stendhal Syndrome, you’d be on the right track. Pellizzi has adapted the premise of the book — that the only two avenues available to a young man determined to transcend his class in Restoration France were the military (red) and the clergy (black) — to the contemporary art world.

In Pellizzi’s program, red denotes the commercial route to success (galleries and collectors) and black, as the press release states, is for “the pedagogical (museums, schools, arts organizations, etc.) The relation between the two is complex and always fraught with contradictions.”

Pellizzi is associated with the Bruce High Quality Foundation, the gadfly arts collective specializing in institutional critique, and so it is safe to assume that he is black all the way, a position that informs his deadpan handling of the commercial aspects of the show.

Each square foot of the installation is priced to match the going rate (sales, not rental) of a square foot of Lower East Side real estate. That’s $400. If a collector is interested in acquiring a piece of the installation, Pellizzi will paint a shape determined by the buyer (which could be a square, a rectangle, a cross, an L and so forth) with four-inch-wide black brushstrokes on the red field.

The shape is recorded in a plan book and signed by both the artist and the collector. At the end of the show, Pellizzi will cut out the shapes through the midpoint of the black lines and transfer the pieces to the buyers.

G.T. Pellizzi, “The Red and the Black” (2013), installation view, oil-based enamel on plywood (click to enlarge)
G.T. Pellizzi, “The Red and the Black” (2013), installation view, oil-based enamel on plywood

This procedure, then, is red all the way. The artist surrenders all agency, outside of the colors and the vertical/horizontal orientation of the brushstrokes, to the buyer. The size and shape of the elements and their relationship to the overall installation are taken out of his hands.

If we interpret the installation’s evolution, with new shapes continually added by collectors, as the arc of a career, we see that while the artist seems to be calling the shots and the collector is acquiescing, initially, to the artist’s vision, the very nature of the commercial transaction distorts the artist’s relationship to her or his own work. It is the collector who ends up implicitly shaping the artist’s decisions going forward.

This is a pretty dim view, to say the least, of the participants in the contemporary art market, as well as a gross simplification of a complex issue. But Pellizzi’s willingness to implicate himself in the process lends the metaphor a good deal of weight. His intent is satirical, but the formal qualities of the installation, which are considerable, persuade us to take what he is doing seriously.

The loss of agency on the part of the artist is a hotly debated philosophical point, and to allow others to chart a work’s path carries profound implications. That Pellizzi is selling the right to collaborate is a desecration, but it is a faint echo of the inexhaustible desecrations sullying the wider world (not to mention the historical fact that almost all art since ancient times has been made for governments, religion or the rich). He is setting up his own behavior as a dark mirror of reality.

Through the red and the black, as the press release states, the art world “offers two paths to power.” The commercial and the pedagogical are the poles most artists, especially young artists, find themselves between these days, belonging to neither.  Are they looking for a path to power? It would be naïve to deny that some are, but most are simply seeking a way to do their work while navigating the shoals of real life.

Even so, with his Constructivist colors on thick plywood (to be deconstructed at the show’s end), Pellizzi has produced a trenchant (and, apparently, commercially successful) demonstration of a system that entangles us all — psychologically, spiritually and economically — whether we are pursuing power or not, whether we like it or not. Don’t fancy yourself above the fray, he seems to suggest, and proceed with caution.

G.T. Pellizzi: The Red and the Black continues at Y Gallery (165 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 16.

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