Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Carrie Mae Weems at CCA (SF)

On 1/30/07 at California College of the Arts, artist Carrie Mae Weems was the featured speaker in an event that kicked off CCA’s 100th anniversary celebration. She took it as an occasion to give a heart-to-heart talk, veteran artist to young artists.

To start off, she cited some facts about the domination of commercial thinking in the art world. She advised artists to pay attention to the art market because they are not outside of it even if they think they are. She discussed price versus value, and referred to her puzzlements about pricing her own art work. At one point early in her career, she found that her photographs sold better when the price was dramatically raised.

Later in the talk, she returned to the art market, describing it as “incredibly invasive.” She observed that the market is about the construction of taste and about manipulation of value. She said it has little to do with artistic merit. More than once, she reminded the young artists in the audience that the market has little room for most of them. The likelihood, she said, is that “you will be left out.”

In the middle section of the talk, she recounted her recent experiences in looking for a gallery to represent her. For reasons she did not divulge, she had left the New York gallery where she had been represented for 15 years. (I assume this was P.P.O.W., though she didn’t cite the name.) After some years of strong sales, she was unsettled to find that her work was no longer so highly valued in the market. On the other hand, she continued to receive a stream of offers of museum shows and commissions, as well as invitations to lecture. But the lack of gallery representation bothered her. She didn’t like “being on the sidelines.”

She made some efforts to find new representation. She sent out feelers among her acquaintances. She traipsed around Chelsea, carrying a laptop and discs to show her work to a handful of interested parties. She found this depressing. One of her gallery visits was with a gallerist she had known for 15 years, a man who had long expressed interest in her work. At the end of their discussion, he reiterated that he liked her work and was moved by it, but said (smiling) that he needed to discuss with his gallery partner whether they could take her on. This was a lie, Weems said. She knew it immediately. She knew that this gallerist made his own decisions about showing artists. What seemed worse to her was that the gallerist had a look in his eye that told her he was enjoying his feeling of total control. At this point, Weems said she felt “lost in the game.”

In her focus on finding a new gallery, Weems said she was negligent, even rude, toward the various opportunities that continued to come her way outside the commercial market. Finally, while traveling in Europe, she had an epiphany. She began thinking about the notion of value: what is valued, and by whom, and why. She began to focus of the components of the art world outside the commercial galleries. She was struck by a remark that John Baldessari made to her in another context: that what’s not included is often more important that what’s included.

Her advice about the market now is: run away from it, not toward it. She sees an upswing in organizations founded with the intent of moving away from the market. The marketplace is one possibility for art, but not the only one. She ended her talk by reciting a list of people and collectives who have not accepted the market as their standard of value: Coco Fusco, Mel Chin, the Gorilla Girls, Hans Haacke, Group Material, Jenny Holzer, Lucy Lippard, Robert Smithson, and many more.

Leaving CCA that night, I wondered how the young artists (and others) received it. Cynically, people might have thought: she turned her back on the market AFTER it turned its back on her. And they might wonder what tune she’d sing if a major New York gallery suddenly begged to represent her. In any case, they would have gotten the message: the art market is a drug, it affects your perceptions, don’t say you weren’t warned.

(The photo at the top, borrowed from the University of Delaware museum site, is from Weems’s Kitchen Table series.)

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