Allan McCollum first attracted notice in the 1970s while living in Venice Beach. His early works have the irreverent, anti-establishment vibe of that place and time; he is best known for his “Surrogate Paintings” and “Plaster Surrogates” from that period. When I heard that the artist’s newest exhibition at Petzel Gallery was a continuation of this series I wondered why, after so many years, the artist had returned to this early project and what, if anything, separates the new from the old.
McCollum’s original “Surrogate Paintings” are actually plaster sculptures painted to look like a frame, a mat and a solid black painting (or picture area). They sit, mild mannered, on the wall, like a smirking class prankster whose insincere “good behavior” seems to upset the teacher more than if he were to launch spitballs as expected. There is something curmudgeonly and familiar about their attitude — like when you hated sports in high school and your gym teacher made you play volleyball anyway so you just stood there gumming up the works. This idea famously has its roots in a labor strategy called “work to rule” in which employees use adherence to the rules as a method of organized protest. While police officers might refuse to issue citations, or factory workers might decline to work overtime, in this instance McCollum refuses to do more than the bare minimum required to identify his work as art.
In an interview with Jade Dellinger published in March 2013 by Sculpture Magazine, McCollum explains his original reaction to the art world:
“ … what especially struck me was how all this feeds into a class system. That really bothered me, because I come from a poor family. We never owned art or the types of objects that would end up in a museum if we died, and this is true for most people. I never thought to hang around with rich people. It may sound cynical, but when you choose to be an artist—whether you know it or not — you are choosing to please wealthy collectors and patrons. Supporting the arts and accumulating art objects make the rich feel important, allowing them to provide entertainment for their friends.”
McCollum is neither the first nor the last artist to make this observation. However it is pretty awesome to see how his original surrogates assert themselves now, 40 years after their creation. They make the artist’s point for him. In the last couple of years, walking around the Armory Art Fair in New York, or Art Basel Miami Beach, his black and white plaster “Surrogate Paintings” have become relatively ubiquitous. Seeing these works prized by collectors initially confused me. I have to admit that I found these works annoying the first time I saw them, I kept thinking, “Why should I care?” Now, watching museums and collectors compete to buy these art-props gives me pause. It all seems like a bizarre performance made more so as the works become older and more scarce.
The works on view now at Petzel Gallery are also plaster “surrogates””. This series was produced in collaboration with the artist Andrea Zittel. Now located on the west coast, Zittel made her start in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn where she housed “A-Z Enterprises” first in a store front, then in a 3 story brownstone. The site functioned as an art studio, apartment, and a sort of multidisciplinary design lab and showroom. Hers is the sort of art/design hybrid that makes reference to the likes of the Bahaus school. Zittel’s focus seems to be that the objects we interact with on a daily basis can be elevated to the level of, or considered equivalent to art.
While McCollum plays his typical role as laborer/ artmaker, employing other artists to help him construct his plaster paintings, Zittel plays the role of designer or art director. She was responsible with choosing the color of each work and for organizing them into groups of 8 and installing them on site. At first glance Zittel’s influence is immediately apparent. The colors of the work are reminiscent of the yellows, oranges and grays of the California desert she now calls home. In their new multicolored state, the works feel comparatively sleek, as if constructed with a fancy loft in mind. A friend of mine remarked to me while I was reviewing pictures I took of the installation: “Oh, those are cool, sort of boring, but nice.” I have to admit the works on display would look well over a couch.
Each “Collection of Eight Plaster Surrogates” feels shiny and new. Gone are the imposing black surfaces of the early surrogates. Instead, frame, mat and artwork are one indistinguishable blur. They seem to blend even further into the background than the originals, but does that make them less or more subversive? In today’s art world questions like “is it art” seem irrelevant. Better to ask “Is it cool?” or “Will it look good next to … ?”
Perhaps this is why McCollum is less concerned that his props properly resemble a picture in a frame. Rather, there is something more aestheticly pleasing and design conscious about these new iterations. It is because of the saturated color that in my mind “Eight Plaster Surrogates” seem to willfully mush themselves into the realm of the Damien Hirst dot painting. While they are both conspicuously consumable and empty of additional content, at least McCollum is trying to prove a point? They both serve the same function, to signify the cultural prowess of the owner. Of course there is a difference; McCollum is the author of a story describing a character that Hirst embodies. The problem is that in the 40 year interim between the original surrogates and today, certain parts of the commercial art world have become so absurd, they are almost indistinguishable from their parody.
Plaster Surrogates Colored and Organized by Andrea Zittel is on view at Petzel Gallery (456 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 5th.