For what it's worth
Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but market forces set the price
By: Steven Leyden Cochrane; published in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 3, 2014.
Most artists have an uneasy relationship with the market (except, of course, in Winnipeg, which doesn't have one). It's understandable: the work that even talented, innovative, and hardworking artists do usually goes unpaid. The mechanics of price and popularity are capricious at best. In response, many artists choose to work against market forces or circumvent them entirely, either by making work that's impossible to sell or by focusing critical attention on the business side of art.
A group show opening Friday at Library, a gallery run out of Cliff Eyland's Exchange District studio, showcases six artists who continue to grapple with these concerns. Curated by Ufuk Gueray and advertised in the "free stuff" section of Craigslist, FREE (or best offer), brings together a selection of modest but incisive works that offer critical, contemplative and often funny meditations on value and exchange.
Wearing a shaggy green ghillie suit, Scottish artist Jack McLean summons the ghost of Land Art (a pointedly hard-to-market movement) in Hole, a series of absurdist performances. Sneaking into different public parks under cover of darkness, McLean produces "sculptures" (which he "sells") by clandestinely digging holes and filling them with paint, a process documented in photographs and whimsical illustrations.
With a solo installation currently at the WAG, Toronto conceptualist Micah Lexier is probably the show's most high-profile contributor, but his piece is the easiest to overlook. A Coin in the Corner is just that, a custom-minted coin placed in a corner of the gallery, its face bearing a stylized representation of itself (an image of a coin in a corner). Secured to the floor by hidden posts, identical coins have been permanently installed at Library and five other local galleries. Puzzling, self-contained and curiously charming like all of Lexier's work, A Coin asks us to consider what we look for when we look at art (and how hard we're willing to look for it), framing "value" as something always frustratingly out of reach.
Annie Onyi Cheung's Make a Wish! makes use of another, more familiar coin, the dearly decommissioned penny. Attached to cards with instructions to toss the coin in a fountain and make a wish, Cheung distributes the pennies freely, charging the now-worthless coins with an alternate, non-monetary value and a dual sense of promise and obligation.
Disposable and disposed-of objects recur throughout. Claire Greenshaw contributes two meticulously rendered drawings of crumpled, handwritten notes, one asking for money and the other demanding it. The drawings' photorealist handling underscores their fine art status, and they serve as a wry reminder that most artworks are, on some level, an implicit request for cash. Effecting a similar transformation, Kristin Nelson produced an edition of hand-woven textiles that perfectly mimic sheets torn out of a yellow legal pad. Made specifically for charity auctions (like many artists, Nelson receives constant requests for donations), they nod to the unexpected (and unintended) ways that art comes to be devalued while still being beautiful, finely crafted objects in their own right.
Tricia is Erica Mendritzki's portrait of a scuffed, mostly unused bottle of perfume. No doubt cheap to begin with, its neon green price tag reads "FREE" in handwritten block letters. Shot against a pristine white backdrop, the photograph has a gemlike loveliness that, poignantly, almost imparts the intended aura of luxury. The tag reappears in a subtle but startling companion piece, where it's affixed to a mirror, the text reversed. In one of the show's most affecting revelations, Mendritzki casts us into "Tricia's" perspective, where we're suddenly confronted by our own consumer gaze.
Because of Library's irregular hours, your best opportunity to see the show will be the First Friday launch on July 4, which runs from noon to 9 p.m. FREE (or best offer) runs through Aug. 8. See Library's Facebook page for gallery hours: http://facebook.com/groups/libraryartgallery.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.
Photos: William Eakin, Erica Mendritzki