The Non-Profit Margin
Erin Starr White
Temporary Services (et al.), A National Conversation About Art, Labor, and Economics, 2009; ink on paper, with supplemental materials assembled by the curator; dimensions variable; courtesy the artists and CentralTrak, Dallas; photo by Carolyn Sortor
Richie Budd, All I Have To Give, 2010; artist’s wisdom tooth mounted in acrylic box on pedestal; 1 of 4; 46 x 9 x 9 inches; courtesy the artist
With conceptual links to New York-based artist coalitions of the late 1960s and ’70s, The Non-Profit Marginat CentralTrak (UT Dallas’ artist residency space) aimed to reveal “the economics of the art worker” with works that investigate and resist conventional systems of exchange. The exhibition’s accompanying language discussing the artist-as-cultural-worker offers a telling contrast to recent conversations of the rampant commodification of the artist. Staging such an exhibition in Dallas is smart, as the city—famous for its materialistic personality—could stand to see work that overtly addresses economic influence and, specifically, the art and luxury market. Finance-friendly Dallas offers a productive backdrop for rethinking art’s role in a recession-bruised society.
One of the most compelling and challenging works is Illinois-based Temporary Services’ newsletter Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labor, and Economics(2009). Intended for broad circulation, the collective’s bulletin disseminates essays on art’s role in American socioeconomic structures. Its pages deliver a scathing review of “dirty capitalist shenanigans,” as well as alternatives to conventional avenues of exchange and communication. The presentation of these distributable texts at CentralTrak is refreshingly engaging. Broadsheets are posted along hallway walls; essays calling for revolution and the collective’s manifesto surround the viewer and encourage up-close reading. Handwritten solicitations for viewer suggestions offer further opportunities for interaction and lend an earnest DIY spirit to the cause. Accessible and provocative, this installation intends to start conversations within the local art community.
Also seeking to stimulate the viewer by soliciting personal engagement is Thomas Riccio and Frank Dufour’s The Invention of Memory, where the artist pair employs multiple media to create a quasi-kinetic receptacle for “vocal and visual memories.” A mystical-looking outhouse of sorts, their contribution echoes Rauschenberg’s visceral assemblages of common materials. Various items flank each side of the tall wooden unit, while its backside supports a flat screen computer monitor with a jumpy black-and-white video; the receptacle for the viewer’s memories hangs on the structure’s right side. The proximity of the screen and receptacle does not aid in clarifying their relationship to each other despite the artists’ explanation (printed and hung on the structure’s left panel) that “memory-bearing” objects contribute to a service market. Adding to the mystery of the work, the edifice’s tattered front door is ajar, revealing a video projection on the interior floor that is identical to that playing on the exterior backside. Fraught with associations, the ambiguity of this object/experience perhaps speaks to the inscrutable nature of producing meaning in the art world—quite opposite to the clarity promoted in Temporary Services’ Art Work.
Gary Farrelly, TexBond (16 Dallas), 2010; mixed media on paper; 14 x 20 inches; courtesy the artist and CentralTrak, Dallas; photo by Carolyn Sortor
(left) Gary Farrelly, TexBonds, 2010; mixed medium on paper; 14 x 20 inches each; (center) Thomas Riccio and Frank Dufour, The Invention of Memory, 2010; wood, cardboard, fabric, mirror, camera, microphone, software; 124 x 42 x 47 inches; (right) Works by give up, 2004–06; acrylic on newsprint; dimensions variable; courtesy the artists and CentralTrak, Dallas; photo by Carolyn Sortor
The rest of the exhibition’s diverse offerings inject the gallery space with a sense of the art worker’s presence, ironically or not, and meet with varying degrees of success. Richie Budd’s All I Have to Givedisplays the artist’s wisdom tooth in a sterile vitrine at the exhibition entrance. His lone body part suggests an earnestness and personal investment sometimes absent from exhibitions of contemporary art, especially when what is on view appears made to sell. Budd’s Diner Coupon, a long row of twenty evenly spaced, identical vouchers in clear plastic frames, offers the viewer another chance, at least conceptually, to possess a chunk of the artist, or at least his time. Each coupon features a pokerfaced photo of the artist and promises a “one-night only diner [sic] with the artist: Richie Budd.” The misspelling of “dinner,” intended or not, adds intrigue and humor to the proposition. Is the holder to eat with the artist or share a Denny’s with him?
Also offering a share of the personal within the gallery is Gary Farrelly’s Kunst Bureaucracy, which charts and quantifies the artist’s “operating performance” during his residency at CentralTrak. Brightly colored and didactic visuals signify bonds that Farrelly sold to celebrate (and financially augment) his stay in “the great metropolis of Dallas.” Regrettably, these hand-drawn charts and graphs are more visually interesting than their content can support. Though his diagrams endorse the idea of the artist as an active agent in the sale of his labor, Farrelly’s propositions, which quantify a handful of mundane daily activities, are too much of a one-liner to provoke more thought on the value of his gestures. Quite the opposite is Marjorie Schwarz’ Untitled (Pearl String by Marjorie)located in the gallery’s two restrooms. Schwarz’ installations present wallpaper printed with a repeated photographic image of a pair of hands stringing pearls, along with rolls of toilet paper printed with various phrases. This unobtrusive yet distinctive intervention in an intensely private site is memorable for effectively inserting the artist and her musings into the flow of daily life.
Ludwig Schwarz’ Discount BBQ Duck Restaurantis in keeping with the artist’s interest in capitalist production, yet his photographic and digital images of a crispy duck carcass atop a plastic chair seem gimmicky. Still, the cheaply printed and folded menu for the eponymous pseudo-restaurant suggests that triteness could be the point. Overall, the principal lesson of this exhibition is that an artist’s personal investment in a work offers an alternative to the status quo of art object as commodity, in which value is determined by the whims of collectors, dealers and auction houses. This “non-profit margin” supports the notion that the artist is not merely a cog in the mechanics of the art market but is a valuable worker in society, making a convincing case for the notion that the personal is indeed political.
Erin Starr White is Assistant Curator of Education, Student and Educator Programs at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.