On ViewJames Fuentes Gallery
June 5 – June 22, 2014
For his first solo show in New York, Ryan Sawyer offered a challenging variation on now well-entrenched deconstructive themes. He stripped all of the copper from the drywall of the front room of the James Fuentes Gallery, and sold it in Brooklyn as scrap metal. (In the back room, intact electrical wiring allowed the gallerists to keep doing business.) In this case, the framed sales certificate, which is part of the exhibition, reveals that Sawyer did a lot of labor for just $24; nowadays, it seems, being a thief is hard work. In his conversion of that transgressive practice into an artistic gesture, the oddly beautiful jagged lines on the gallery’s bare ceiling and walls may remind you of sinopie, the drawings beneath Italian frescoes which are sometimes uncovered by restorers. By cutting into the physical space, Sawyer gets you to see the gallery itself as a work of art, in a way that surely inflects how you will view such sites in the future. In displaying the vulnerability of the physical gallery, Sawyer created an aesthetically pleasing display—an exhibition in which nothing is for sale. Such a deconstruction, which destroys and ornaments the gallery at the same time, displays a deep ambivalence: the art gallery is loved and it is scorned, venerated and critiqued—which is to say that love and hate of this seductive institution are intimately linked.
Without the art gallery—that sales room which stands between the artist’s studio and the museum or collector’s home—our art world would hardly be imaginable. But because they are essentially business sites, it’s natural, surely, that galleries inspire deep ambivalence, especially when so many of them are upscale places where few art writers can afford to shop. The liberal-leftist politics of most critics are in obvious conflict with the economic realities of the gallery system. Once you realize how much our art world depends upon the often-avaricious attention of the superrich, then it’s natural for critics, whatever their personal politics, to feel uncomfortable. And so it’s unsurprising that for several generations many artists have challenged the commercial gallery system, by setting within this container where art is presented objects critical of this process of commoditization. Like the art it displays, the gallery has a history, which deserves to be described in detail, both for its intrinsic interest and because it may help us interpret the contents.
A great deal of art uses the gallery as a shop for politically transgressive art. Other perhaps more radical artists have developed this critical attack on the gallery in a more dramatic way, physically transforming the very architecture of this institution. In the 1950s two important pioneering French exhibitions developed the logic of such an analysis in an aggressive way. At the Iris Clert Gallery (April 1958), Yves Klein called his show La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée, Le Vide (The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void). He removed everything except a large cabinet, and painted every surface white. For the opening, the gallery’s window was painted blue, a blue curtain was hung in the entrance lobby, and there were republican guards and blue cocktails for visitors. The show was a great success—3,000 people queued up to be let into the empty room. Two years later, in response, Arman filled up the same gallery with garbage. More recently, in 2007 Urs Fischer attacked the floor at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, creating an eight-foot deep crater extending almost to the walls. And other artists have responded in similarly antagonistic ways to the physical structure of the museum. In 1993 Hans Haacke trashed the floor of the German pavilion in Venice. And in 2007 Doris Salcedo opened a 548-foot-long crack on the floor in the Turbine Hall at the entrance of Tate Modern, London.
How does Sawyer advance this history of institutional critique? Like Klein, Arman, Fischer, Haacke, and Salcedo, he is ambivalent about the gallery system. Artists need to display their art, but the galleries inevitably commodify what they present. And so it’s unsurprising that many artists are unhappy. And now, I suspect, when the prices of upscale art are so high, more is at stake—economically and aesthetically—than in the recent past. In focusing on the ways that scrap metal is salvaged and resold in the broader economy, Sawyer links the gentrification of the Lower East Side to larger political structures. Whatever his personal concerns, or those of James Fuentes Gallery, his exhibition is part-and-parcel of a larger economic process which, if history be any guide, will end up expelling the galleries from this soon-to-be over-developed haut bourgeois neighborhood. Three decades ago, Craig Owens (who was my editor at Art in America) was highly critical about the gentrification of this neighborhood, which now, as we all know, proceeds ever more forcefully. Art can comment upon—but it alone is impotent to derail—this process, whose historical logic this exhibition ambiguously addresses, in a way that I admire.