Monthly Archives: March 2012


Nowt so Queer as Folk: Jeremy Deller’s Social Surrealism

David Shrigley Banner, The Southbank Center,London  

David Shrigley’s smartly satirical banner, revolting against the dreary London sky, is a fitting prologue to Jeremy Deller’s sincere and political mid-career survey, Joy in People. Shrigley’s work, which is also on view at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre, is humorous and mildly disturbing –watch this video to see what I mean– and was well worth the visit. But it was Deller’s work that I have found myself discussing, questioning and digesting over the last two weeks.

Valerie’s Snack Bar (2009). During the show visitors can enjoy free cups of tea while watching a video of the procession Deller organized in Manchester. Photo by Linda Nylind

The show Joy in People documents Deller’s “social surrealism” projects from 1993 through the present. A definitive relational artist, Deller’s role in his works shifts between collaborator, facilitator, patron and documentarian. He interweaves the quirks and questions of daily life (bathroom stall graffiti, struggling with an unruly deck chair, “whatever happened to Bez from the Happy Mondays?”) with the larger arcs of social history and politics that we all play a part in. Unlike relational artists who have used interaction as a  metaphysical tool (think Felix Gonzales-Torres or Rikrit Tirivanija), Deller’s work is useful: empathy and dialogue are direct results of his historical reenactment, the greasy pole monument allows a town to continue one of their folk traditions, and his London Bat house project provides protected species with a replacement for habitats destroyed by development.

In The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is An Injury to All), 2001, Deller reenacts one of the more violent confrontations of the 1984-85 British miners’ strike.

One of the last sections of the exhibit documented Deller’s failures, including his rejected proposals for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and the London Tube map. In one of the plinth proposals, scientist David Kelly -who killed himself after being accused of telling the truth about Weapons of Mass Destruction to journalists- sits with his legs hanging over the edge of the plinth, trying to edge out of the spotlight that history has given him. His story echoes that of the Yorkshire policeman in The Battle of Orgreave (2001), who joined the force to serve his community and ended up “helping to destroy it”. In that same film, MP Tony Benn quotes the adage “In war, truth is the first casualty.” But the stories of these two men suggest something darker and more complex about the ways truth and morality can be manipulated by those in power, and the casualties that result.

Rejected proposal for the Fourth Plinth, with David Kelly. Copyright Jeremy Deller.

Though all Deller’s plinth proposals failed, he did eventually design a successful cover for the Tube map: a portrait of the longest serving TfL employee, executed by artist Paul Ryan.

In an interview recorded when Deller was a nominee for the 2004 Turner Prize (which he subsequently won), he confidently declared that he does not care whether what he does is art or not, and I agree that this debate is not interesting. However, it is interesting to look at how Deller has navigated through his projects, both using and expanding the position of “artist.” This position gives Deller access to various cultural and political institutions, and allows him to come into charged situations as a somewhat unbiased outsider. The fact that he is an artist, and not a scholar or journalist, also gives him the latitude to explore ideas backwards and inside out, focusing on the details and characters that peak his interest. He is not the first artist to use the role this way, but his playful disregard for the boundaries of art making, and the ranging scope of his interests, felt fresh. And as an artist, it felt like a call to action.

Los Angeles On Making

The Imagined Landscape of Success

Discussing success in front of Kelly Poe’s idealized landscapes.

This Saturday, I  went to The Success Question, a panel moderated and organanized by LA Times critic Holly Myers. According to the email announcement, this panel was going to discuss questions such as:

How do we conceive of success in the art world? Who sets the terms? Who should set the terms? What is the role of the market? How does the press figure in? Have art schools shifted expectations of success? Is a coherent notion of success even possible in a world defined by such a pluralistic array of practices? How has the rising profile of the LA art scene changed the way that success is understood here? What is the difference between successful and popular? Is success satisfying? What is it that really matters in the end?

Those are some big questions. And to answer these questions Myers brought in some big players: Mark BradfordEileen CowinAnna Sew HoyPaul Schimmel and Susanne Vielmetter. Yes, Myers was aware of this irony, and the panel did a good job of giving balanced and interesting answers despite the glaring handicap that all the participants are traditionally successful. Next time I would like to see a panel that includes a 28-year-old who holds down three jobs to pay for her studio -which gallerists rarely visit; a 60-year-old who has never had a single solo show but really likes what she makes, and a mid-career artist who went straight to the Whitney Biennial from graduate school and has only shown a handful of times –and only in the Pacific Northwest– ever since. Then we could have the kind of raw and uncomfortable conversation that the topic of success really deserves. But until then, this panel was a good start.

Distilled into easy-to-remember sound bite form, the ideas from this event were:

  • Success is an ever receding point.
  • Staying afloat means staying fluid.
  • Nurture and participate in dialogue.
  • Don’t chase the market; wait until the market comes back to you.
  • LA is a friendlier art scene than NY.
  • LA needs more writing about art. Which means we need publications to pay writers. So we need a market that will fund these publications. But it is our perceived distance from the market that keeps us friendly. Hmm.
  • Financial success, critical success and actually making good work have very little to do with each other.
  • Make the work. Accept when you have no ideas: don’t embarrass yourself by making crap. But do risk making crap because otherwise you won’t do anything new.
  • Make the work.

Eileen Cowen brought up the infamous orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. It ends with a woman in the deli saying “I’ll have what she’s having,” ordering what she believes will give her the same experience as Ryan, though of course the irony of the scene is that Ryan was faking it. Cowen’s point was that many of us are chasing a fake orgasm, and that what we think will make us happy, might not. This is probably true for every profession, but artists –who, let’s face it, are much less likely to have a pragmatic outlook– might have a particularly idealized view of “making it.”

The panel took place at LAX art, surrounded by Kelly Poe’s For the Wild. To create this series of photographs, Poe befriended a group of jailed environmental activists and asked them to describe the image of the wilderness that they turn to for solace. She then traveled to these same spots and attempted to capture each location as it had been described by the prisoner. In the photos, each landscape sings as an untouched paradise, lush and vivid and personal –embodying a pristine fantasy. And, as the title suggests, the activists Poe interviewed have all sacrificed their freedom for this idea of the wild.

As I listened to the speakers, I couldn’t help but draw the parallel between Poe’s images and the discussion of success underway. As anyone who has ventured off the beaten path knows, the wilderness, though exhilarating and beautiful, is usually also messy and uncomfortable, involving some combination of bugs, shitting in holes and sweat soaked clothing. Some people disappear into it forever, but most are happy to return to a solid roof and a hot shower at some point.

The art world, to those who venture in, was probably once a fantasy. My particular fantasy, was that “The Art World” was populated by supremely intelligent, sensitive beings who cared more about ideas and beauty, then money and facts. These mystical beings would respect my desire to be left alone in my studio –a large, light filled attic in a Victorian building in London– but when I wanted, would appear, ready to discuss philosophy, poetry, theatre… And of course, surrounded by that earnest brilliance, I would make paintings that shot straight to the root of the human experience.

Gustave Courbet, The Artist’s Studio; A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life, oil on canvas, 1854-55 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Needless to say, that is not the world that I currently inhabit. But, in the right light, from one particular spot, on the right day, if you squint a little bit, some aspect of that absurd fantasy is my life. I do know a circle of people who value aesthetics and ideas, with whom I can meander through literature, art, politics etc. I do have a small drywall box to call my own, and, when I make a painting, there are a couple of people who will happily discuss my technical choices. I set my own hours, I follow my nose, and I can justify spending my Monday reading Guston’s collected writings…or whatever else I want. But I absolutely couldn’t do it alone. It takes people to push you on (or maybe even carry you for a little while) when your strength of will fails. Also luck.

So I would like to add the following to the list of success sound bites:

  • Just keep swimming.
  • Get comfortable with contradictions.
  • Find a good therapist, preferably one who will trade sessions for artwork.
  • Establish good karma and be generous with what you have.
  • Focus on the process and its by-products.
  • Remember that there is no art world, other than the one that you inhabit.