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Six Artists Get Down to Business in New Exhibition

POST SECRET: A gallery goer writes a letter at the John Erickson Museum Of Art's portable mailroom.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 7/2/2008

In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, one of the world's best known artists sums up and defends his career ambitions by declaring "good business is the best art." As commercial as the art world might be these days, you could wander through a half dozen galleries before finding someone who would agree with this business-for-art's-sake philosophy. But the playfully titled Cottage Industry, the new exhibit at the Contemporary Museum, tests Warhol's claim with work by six artists who manipulate, maneuver through, and even mirror contemporary business practices.

Christine Hill is perhaps the most typical artist of this rather atypical exhibit. After graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1991, she moved to Berlin, where she started her Volksboutique, described in the exhibit catalogue as a "fully functioning thrift shop" created after she spent several months working odd jobs while thinking of them as art practices.

Hill went on to produce work that anticipates the folk-craft indie art popular today. On display in the show is one of her travel trunk pieces, "Receptionist Portable Office," which neatly displays all the tools of an office receptionist, from a dress to a thesaurus, in a ready-to-ship container. For one of the many community-based pieces in the show, Hill took photographs of small Baltimore stores and their owners, as yet another record of the labor that goes into the production of everyday life.

The Los Angeles-based Lisa Anne Auerbach explores similar themes as Hill, but in a much more playful manner. Her homage to small businesses places the emphasis on the word "small," with a series of businesses that occupy a single, small building. After photographing tiny beauty salons and herbal medicine shops, Auerbach opened her own small business, a unicycle shop, in Joshua Tree in 2007, charging 10 cents an hour for rentals.

In Baltimore, Auerbach, presumably with the help of the museum's sponsors, has rented out a first-floor business space at 123 W. Saratoga St., simply titled, "The Tract House." Modeling her store after the producers of Bible tracts, Auerbach has created modern-day tracts of all sizes and designs, ranging in tone from prophetic to pedantic. The fact that the shop is located next to a candle shop that happens to sell its own religious tomes makes the piece only more captivating, although Auerbach seeks to win converts to cycling, not Jesus.

Although the show turns the "micro" in "micro-enterprise" into a term of endearment, it also includes some pieces that are designed to scale up. Fritz Haeg designs front lawn gardens, which he calls "Edible Estates," as part of his "attack on the front lawn and everything it has come to represent." As part of a planned 10 prototype gardens in different regions in the country, Haeg designed a garden that was planted in the front lawn of a home in northwest Baltimore's Callaway-Garrison neighborhood. At the museum, you can see photos of Haeg's gardens elsewhere, as well as a video documenting the construction of the garden.

The three other enterprises represented in the exhibit explore similar themes, but sit more comfortably in the museum context. Andrea Zittel's Smockshop creates inexpensive, yet "art-world fabulous" clothing that can be worn as uniform or displayed as museum piece. In the show, Zittel's dresses are displayed near Hill's trunk case, emphasizing the similarity of the aesthetics and business models of the two artists.

The other two pieces are also similar to each other, but manifest themselves in different ways. The City Reliquary Museum, a neo-traditionalist curiosity cabinet based in Brooklyn, donates one of its of enigmatic display cases, where everything from subway paint chips to miniature Statues of Liberty can be seen. The museum, founded in 2002 by the Dave Herman, reinvents kitsch for the hipster set, but still manages to love New York as only a transplant can.

The John Erickson Museum of Art, founded by Floridian Sean Miller reinvents the museum as a portable object. But while the pint-sized pieces, housed in aluminum-cased boxes, are the focus of the display, the museum also keeps its other necessary functions, such as counting attendance, maintaining an archive and permanent collections, and even running a mailroom. Unlike the City Reliquary, which succeeds as a throwback to an antiquated museum aesthetic, JEMA, as it is commonly called, seeks to replicate the contemporary museum.

For one of his other projects, Miller collects dust from prominent museums, places the dust under a microscope and photographs them, producing images that are then placed onto paper coasters and sold at the museums. Miller's coasters of dust from the Contemporary Museum, available in sets of six, are on sale at the museum store.

In the attractively designed exhibit catalogue, co-curator Kristin Chambers argues that the artists represented in the show "use the language of business and consumerism as an organizing principle for their creative output." Although the exhibit doesn't acknowledge it explicitly, the artists here aren't interested in mimicking capitalism in order to mock it. Rather, like Warhol, they don't want to draw the line between art and commerce, because it might hurt the bottom line. Good business might not be the best art, but sometimes it's the best way to make art, or, at least, the most profitable.

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