Thursday, December 20, 2018

Favorite Text Art from Art Basel

Large Fancy Room Filled with Cray
by David Shrigley (2018)
I can already hear you saying, "Is that art???"  I get it.  A lot of modern/contemporary art leaves me scratching my head (not to mention wondering who would buy these works). But there's a method to these artists' apparent madness.

Back in the 1960s, conceptual artists rebelled against the idea that a painting had to contain forms. Why couldn't language take the place of an image? Why couldn't a concept itself be art?

I learned from the Museum of Modern Art's website that Joseph Kosuth was one of the first artists to employ language in his work. His One and Three Chairs included a photograph of a chair, an actual chair and a canvas on which the definition of the word "chair" had been printed. (To see One and Three Chairs, click here.) I like it. It makes me smile. But MOMA explains that Kosuth's idea wasn't to make viewers feel happy, but to raise the philosophical question of which representation is most accurate. Yes, it can make your head spin.

Untitled (It's Raining Morons) by David Shrigley

Fast forward 50 some years to the text-inclusive artwork at Art Basel. I love David Shrigley's Large Fancy Room Filled with Crap. It's the truth of the statement that makes it work -- and makes me laugh. And unlike Kosuth, that's exactly Shrigley's intention. His work takes a satirical look at today's world, a sensibility that serves him well as a cartoonist for The Guardian newspaper.

 In 2016, Shrigley created a monumental work for Central Park -- a 17' tall shopping list. (Click here to see it.)  It might seem silly, but it's definitely a work to which every passerby could relate.

If you relate to the work of this Turner Prize-winning artist, you can purchase a "room filled with crap" dish towel by clicking here. To see more of Shrigley's work, click here. The more I look at it, the more I appreciate it.

EAT FAT by Regina Vater (1974)
Not all of the work at Art Basel was created recently. Take, for instance, EAT FAT by Brazilian artist Regina Vater, a piece of sculptural text art made nearly 45 years ago. With the food frenzy of the holidays upon us, the work took on heightened meaning.

Vater's work was in a Survey space, defined by Art Basel as "16 precise art historical projects...representing a range of cultures, generations and artistic approaches." Vater's body of work has a distinctly political/feminist slant. She has worked in an astonishing number of mediums, including performance art, painting, sculpture, video and mail art. Click here to read a fascinating interview with the artist in which she talks about her five decades of work.

Masquerade Nurse by
Richard Prince (2000s)
Then there was the work of Richard Prince. Prince is, well, the king of appropriation art, a genre popularized in the 1970s. The difference between straight out stealing and inspiration depends upon the amount of "transformation" of the original image. (Trust me, the rabbit hole on this one is quite deep.)

Prince began his artistic practice of re-photography while working at Time-Life. At the end of each day, some tear sheet images he's seen cried out to be used in his own work. Perhaps the best known of these series depicted the Marlboro Man.

Prince's first step was to re-photograph ads featuring the hyper-masculine cowboy. He then blew up the pictures, cropped out the text, and framed the remaining images. Voila!  An ad became art.

One of the many interesting aspects of Prince's work is his acknowledgment of his lack of skill.  "I had limited technical skills. Actually I had no skills. I played the camera. I used a cheap commercial lab to blow up the pictures. I never went into a darkroom," Prince told Artforum in 2003.

Prince's Nurse Paintings were inspired by the covers of pulp romance novels that would have been available at every corner store in their day. For this series, Prince took pictures of the covers of novels in his own extensive book collection, blew them up and began "editing" them. He came upon the concept of the mask when he completely painted over one image with white paint. Not liking the result, he wiped some of the paint off and was left with something akin to a surgical mask. The lightbulb went off. The concept seemed to resonate, with these works frequently selling for $50-60,000. To see more of Prince's Nurse Paintings, click here. (They really are quite intriguing.) And to read more about Prince and his work, click here.

We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For
by Sam Durant (2018)
I'll leave you with the work of Sam Durant. His We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For was literally the first work I saw upon entering Art Basel. Hello! The message felt like a wake-up call.

Durant works in a variety of mediums, including electric signs like the one here. (The text is vinyl.)  Durant often uses historical events--typically protests--as the basis of his work. In describing his electric signs, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art noted his intention to "encourage critical reevaluation" by adopting language employed in a different context. The message of this work struck me as fresh and timely. To read this article and see more of Durant's text-based work, click here and here.

While I was introduced to Sam Durant through his text art, his work extends to other mediums. I would be remiss not to mention the controversy surrounding one of Durant's installation works -- Scaffold. The political work was intended to raise awareness about the U.S. government's historic use of gallows in public executions.

Scaffold by Sam Durant
The installation was displayed in Germany and Scotland without any backlash. But when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis proposed including the work in its sculpture garden, a hue and cry arose from the local Dakota Indians. Thirty-eight members of their tribe had been hung in Minnesota in 1862. What right did Durant have to use this tragedy as a basis for his art?

If you're reminded of the Dana Schutz' Open Casket controversy at the Whitney, you're right on point. But unlike Schutz, Durant apologized for his cultural insensitivity and agreed that the sculpture would be burned.  Durant's response to the Dakota community eloquently talks about his feeling that, as a white artist, it's his responsibility to highlight white supremacy and privilege and that he has been caught in the "zone of discomfort" he intended to create for other whites. To read his statement in its entirety, click here. To read more about the controversy, click here and here.

I'll end my recap of my Art Basel experience by answering my own question. Yes, my friends, this is art.

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