Looking at Artmaking Labor Can Be Laborious

02/02/2010 4:00 AM |

Are the standards for labeling exhibitions as “outstanding” slipping? I asked myself this question at Murray Guy this weekend visiting the gallery’s “Vertically Integrated Manufacturing” for a second time. Several people had told me it was worth seeing and while they weren’t wrong, the work is far too inconsistent to compile a “good” show. With few strong inclusions, the exhibition has a tidy show concept and a few star artists names going for it, more than it does quality.

Taking its title from a term describing companies handling both the production and sale of their products, the artists in “Vertically Integrated Manufacturing” explore labor as it relates to studio practice. The practice isn’t new, and the exhibition rightly reflects this: The two galleries include a range of emerging to established artists. Among the more prominent and visually compelling works are a series of four black and white photographs of industrial buildings first printed in 1967 (reprinted in 2004/5) by Bernd and Hilla Becher, juxtaposed with 66-year-old Allan McCollum‘s army of unique copper cookie cutters assembled on gridded table tops. The “mass-production” connection in the combination of work is about as obvious as can be made: its simplicity works well. As a brilliant matter of circumstance, the white frame of the photographs picks up on the white table borders, emphasizing each as a packaging for a product or its producer.

Set against these pieces is a series of elegantly designed starlit napkins arranged on triangular glass mounts and a book of unique poster backgrounds by DAS INSTITUT. The collaborative’s inclusion in the show is rationalized by their claim that they are an import-export business—one member creates paintings and the other prints them—a ridiculously inflated description of process, if ever I’ve heard one. Without the posturing, the sculptures function fine, so I hope the group gains the confidence to drop the gimmick. The book not only reads as less substantial, but also fell apart when I picked it up.

While DAS INSTITUT presents an imperfect yet promising set of works, well-known conceptual artist Stephen Prina fairs less well. Backing a triangular sculpture by famed minimalist Carl Andre, Base 7 Aluminum Stack, 2008, Prina’s two-part panel offers a grid of sepia-toned thumbnails matching each painting in Edouard Manet’s 1967 catalogue raisonne and a to-scale replica made up only of a wash. The piece maps Prina’s labor to that of Manet, a tedious intellectual endeavor well suited for Boing Boing, had it only a little more visual pizazz. If this project still has legs in the art world, it’s because too many collectors have invested in the work for it to completely disappear.

I assume the same must be true of the work included by Francis Alys, an artist best known for shoveling enough sand—with about 500 enlisted volunteers—to move a giant dune by a few inches. In Repertoire 2005, a series of nine works on paper included in the show, Alys essentially remakes Dan Graham’s lists of synonyms, adding an image or two to the work. It’s less than impressive.

But for every disappointing work exhibited, another more successful object nullifies its failure. In the North gallery, Fia Backstrom‘s Recycle (Hanging proposal for sculpture by Kelley Walker), 2007—a Kum-bi-ah, plastic picnic homage to appropriation artist Kelley Walker—serves this purpose. The piece goes a little more inside baseball than I like: her refashioned British Petroleum logo (BP) incorporates Walker’s gold recycling sign as a nod to his interest in politics, consumption and even his fame, meaning a viewer would only get all the meaning behind the piece if they knew the artist. But so be it. Viewers don’t need to know who Kelley Walker is to understand the ridiculousness of recycle-branding a hanging curtain, thinker throw pillows, and plastic plates with the logo of an oil company.

As I moved away from the Backstrom piece, I began to tally the number of successful to poor works in the show. It was a straight split, the stronger works typically taking up more physical space in the exhibition. Perhaps that explains why the exhibition came so highly recommended; but after some thought on the subject, it figures to be a pretty average show. Only with more consistency in quality would “Vertically Integrated Manufacturing” seem deserving of the accolades it’s been receiving.

Photos by Marina Galperina