So you want to be an artist in New York, despite the immense hurdles involved and the fact that the art world is, as you imagined, ultimately focused on profit? Then head over to the Moonlighting exhibition at Hosfelt Gallery (through July 2) in Chelsea and see how it's done.
Upon entering the large, airy space off Eleventh Avenue, I picked up Johanna Taylor's card. As a development administrator at BRIC Rotunda Gallery in Brooklyn Heights, Taylor has witnessed the vagaries of the art world firsthand. The small slip of paper reads: "I have chosen to work in the nonprofit art world in New York. This does not make me a masochist. I realize that you may not understand this given what you may know about nonprofit hours and pay, and art world staff appreciation."
Moonlighting is an exhibition celebrating this struggle to create art during the off-hours. Baseera Khan, an artist at Hosfelt and the show's curator, is responsible for this display of rugged talent from a group of twenty disparate artists with day-jobs in the arts. Khan describes these artists as "time warriors," saying, "They're really fighting for every moment."
While some artists in the exhibition understandably pursue work that will sell, others attempt to circumvent the fiscal realities of the art market. Annie Shaw moved to New York in 2005 to pursue an MFA at Columbia University. She wrote in an e-mail, "[My] workâ€¦is mostly social, interactive, experiential, and difficult to sell or collect. So my livelihood doesn't really depend on the art." This is also true for the Belgian-born artist Filip Noterdaeme, an adjunct professor at NYU, lecturer at the Guggenheim, and founder of the Homeless Museum of Art—a traveling institution that Noterdaeme runs with his partner, Daniel Isengart. Noterdaeme says, "It's the multimillion dollar phenomenon that I spoof, that I deride, that I love, and that, as a moonlighter, I work for."
The idea of art as a commodity is hardly new, but the age of the art investor really began in the mid-1960s, with the creation of the Times-Sotheby art index and the inflation of institutional coffers. In Nothing if Not Critical, Robert Hughes argues that the museum has taken the place of the church as the center of interest in American cities. He writes, "In doing so it has adopted, partly by osmosis and partly by design, the strategies of other mass media: emphasis on spectacle, cult of celebrity, the whole masterpiece-and-treasure syndrome."
Noterdaeme echoes this statement when he says, "Our society is geared so that we continuously ask 'What is the value,' 'what is it worth,' 'What are you worth?' There's always this power relationship." He then pauses, saying, "When I go out there and perform I can take all of that away."
HOMU's hydrothermograph is currently recording the temperature of the Moonlighting exhibition. A series of green charts are arranged in rows beside the measuring instrument; these show the temperature of Noterdaeme's and Isengart's apartment when they opened their doors to visitors from March 2005 to March 2007. Lines skew hot or cold, depending on the season. Noterdaeme says, "In 'real' museums you'll see a controlled climate system there to protect the works. The Homeless Museum is not a controlled environment in any way."
Another artist in the exhibit, Nader Sadek, works late nights and early mornings as a freelance Arabic translator. In his downtime, Sadek makes incredibly disturbing artwork. His latest, "Exhume/Consume" (detail at top), consists of what appears to be a slab of human flesh hung from a large hook above a blackened tree stump ringed with translucent glass shards. The "meat" has deep car engine imprints on its fleshy side with realistic thin veins below its petroleum-based silicone surface. Sadek says, "The car engine is, for me, the most obvious symbol of petroleum use. We're having these wars about who gets to own it." He continues, "We're dying to get this thing fed, so maybe we should just use humans to fuel our petroleum needs. It's a piece of meat up for sale."
Sadek then lamented on the West's dependency on oil, but also said, "I'm not trying to explain but to expose myself as a consumer… there's no way around it. We're all consuming it. We can't help ourselves—we're damned."
It may come as no surprise that Sadek is also a costume designer for Attila Csihar, a singer in Sunn0))) and Mayhem. His piece, "Exhume/Consume," is a welcome addition to the exhibition because it asks the viewer to confront uncomfortable truths about our society without offering a way out—which is exactly what good metal and doom bands do. It's art for the end of days, and it is in no way sanitized.
A few feet away is Danielle Webb's "Tack Collage" (2005), in which a small figure on the head of a tack is posted onto fourteen different landscapes (pictured, below). Webb moved to New York from Philadelphia to get her MFA at Hunter College, and now works as a set decorator for film and commercials. She says, "My job makes me more organized in my work. It's very slowly over time brought in influences that weren't there before, like using found imagery." This intricately crafted exploration of travel and place brings levity to the exhibition and shows Webb's talent for putting a lens on minute and often overlooked details in unremarkable scenery.
The artists in Moonlighting occupy a difficult place in the art world, as they work within the market, but steal fleeting moments of each day to devote to their own projects. From newcomers like Tuesday Smillie, an assistant to collage artist Wangechi Mutu, to established professionals like Filip Noterdaeme, the exhibition represents twenty different approaches artists have taken to survive in this city. Although some of the artists maintain that their jobs are separate from their artwork, it appears that one inevitably influences the other.
(images courtesy the artists and Hosfelt Gallery)