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Send Me the JPEG at Winkleman Gallery is not a show about art, but about the art world. Its title derives from a new phenomenon wherein collectors forgo viewing art firsthand and instead buy works based on digital photographs alone. Those who still love encountering new art in person worry to what extent the online market will eat up art sales and, consequently, whether brick-and-mortar galleries can survive. In March, art world talking head Jerry Saltz movingly voiced his concern about their demise: “The beloved linchpin of my viewing life is playing a diminished role in the life of art.”
The Winkleman Gallery takes a more optimistic view. In a satirical exhibition that eerily conjures the Home Shopping Network, 20 monitors mounted on the walls display everything from paintings to performance pieces, along with attendant title, dimensions, medium, cost, and even shipping information. Each image has a 10–15 second window of time to impress, inspire, or shock before a new one takes its place, and more artworks are shown than could physically fit into the gallery at once. Severed from any tangible contexts, the artworks — along with the rich joy of viewing them — are emasculated. Wouldn’t you rather see this in person? the screens almost taunt. The installation is reminiscent of the Moving Image Contemporary Video Fair, also organized by Winkleman, which has a similar boutique feel. By brandishing the physical experience as proof that galleries will endure, the Winkleman Gallery ignores how little looking at art has actually mattered in the buying and selling of it of late.
For the past two decades, prosperous, brand-name galleries — multinational ones like White Cube and Gagosian — have been central to an increasingly glitzy, celebrity-focused art market that seems to care more about money than it does about art. As the market mushroomed, collectors vying for social clout fueled the careers of artists with a knack for marketing themselves, regardless of true artistic talent. (It’s hard to picture the critic Robert Hughes grilling a thoughtful collector like Henry Frick about his acquisitions as ruthlessly as he did Alberto Mugrabi in this now-legendary video). While many collectors actually value art, many others are simply looking to diversify their investment portfolios. As Saltz points out, some don’t even unwrap their purchases, instead leaving them in storage to await resale. One can’t help wondering whether galleries are now biting the bullet of buying into a hypercapitalist take on art that, for a season, sustained them.
To blame capitalism, however, would be to miss the point. After all, why don’t more people — aside from the critics, curators, and artists themselves — care about art? Last fall, Camille Paglia argued in the Wall Street Journal that the contemporary art gallery has become an “airless echo chamber” of l’art pour l’art, ultimately failing to connect with a larger public. In the meantime, artists who couldn’t thrive in these environs have left for fields like industrial design, video games, and animation. Could it be that there’s some emotional or spiritual bottom line (borrowing a word from capitalism) that humans need met in order to value art, and that galleries and artists are failing to satisfy it in the wider population? If so, the gallery’s demise began long before online art galleries emerged.
Though it raises relevant questions, Send Me the JPEG is ultimately a missed opportunity to dig beneath the art world’s veneer for answers that could potentially challenge it. Art’s true enthusiasts haven’t stopped going to galleries, and it’s doubtful they ever will. If some galleries shrink or close as a result of online buying and smaller crowds, it might even prove an opportunity for those who are left to get back to what matters: the actual art. Saltz writes, “In this quiet environment, it may be possible for us to take back the conversation. Or at least have conversations.” It’s a similar sentiment to one Sarah Thornton expressed last year, when she announced she was quitting writing about the art market: “The general public’s interest in money takes art stories out of the art section and into the front pages of newspapers … but maybe art is better served when the articles about it are at the back.” One can only hope.
Send Me the JPEG continues at Winkleman Gallery (621 W 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 2.