Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Collections- 2

On the very first day of school I was confused when the teacher announced she was coming around to 'collect' the papers on which we had drawn our self-portraits in crayon.   It baffled me that she wanted to take home our childish work and put it in a box.  My Mom had always given me old candy tins and cigar boxes for my 'collections'.  These I piled up and secured with a rubber band.  Children are natural collectors; my passions were rocks, shells, small rubber dinosaurs and tiny glass animals.  Some children on the block collected insects or worms-- the ambitious ones caught butterflies and pressed them sadly between plastic sheets where they miraculously, unlike other things, retained their beauty although dead.

By second grade, I began to save stamps-- they looked so amazing swimming around in their box, like fragile paper mosaics...  and they were labeled with exotic words and people I'd never seen-- landscapes and fairylands.  Some of them had traveled so far to live in my little room.   On rainy days I'd take the boxes out and look at their contents... I'd line them up and study them one by one-- I'd create little plays and vignettes and move them around, hold them up to the window or shine a flashlight on one and then another.

At school, I began to understand there were other meanings to words.  After all, there was the collection plate on Sundays, the toll collector when we crossed bridges, the trash and bottle collector
who came for pick-ups, and later, the tax collector.  What I don't remember is ever exceeding the limit of my boxes.  I did glue the special shells onto a felt board so I could hang them on the wall... but mostly, my little collections remained happily within the boundaries of their containers.  My father had a stack of Roman coins in a tennis-ball can.  I was not allowed to open this myself, but I often sneaked into his closet and shook it around like a tambourine.

These days, when I visit an art fair or museum, they often ask me-- am I a visitor, a dealer or a collector--  the collector, here, being the preferred tag, because they continue to offer you categories and boxes to check so they can identify your 'area of interest'.  An adult collector is a buyer-- someone who acquires things not just because they are beautiful or interesting, but because they are assumed to have value.  You are not just an audience here, but a necessary participant.  The whole show is for your entertainment, your enticement to support the platform-- to buy, spend money, perpetrate the system.  The wares are a few dollars' worth of canvas and paint, or material-- but pulled from the tall hat of the art gallery, they are transformed into 'art'-- they are labelled not only with a signature and a title, but with a corresponding number of dollars which affects the way you perceive these, after a while.  Of course there is true talent out there, but it is less common among the unending unloading of product.  Imagine the numbers of students finishing art school every year, entering the vast pool of what already exists-- not to mention the posthumous forgotten in overpopulated storage bins.

Despite the galactic numbers of images available on anyone's internet allowing nearly anything to be viewable at any time in your home, the acquisition ambition has never been stronger.  It seems also, each successive generation has a certain nostalgia for objects of the previous generation-- vinyl, vintage leather, watches, jewelry, fashion.   Everyday things, removed from their 'era', are not just collectible but valuable.  Online auctions have grown from primitive eBay beginnings to thousands of high-end auctions which offer anything from old master paintings to cars to grand homes and purchasable islands.  For some items, the more they are traded, the higher the value.  Almost everything is searchable, and eventually find-able.

It's no wonder people become hoarders in this culture.  Things are so available and viewable in numbers-- so easy to 'have' at the click of a button, a PayPal 'confirm'... free shipping, the anticipation-- the arrival.. the joy or disappointment... the perpetual Christmas, the careless cheap collections-- for the ones who find happiness in sheer number, the ones who agonize and painfully decide, the ones who like fickle lovers detest within days the very item they have bought-- the research and storytelling, the 'marketing' of a period or a place-- celebrity provenance... There are people who pay many times the value of an item because it belonged once to Madonna, or Andy Warhol, despite the fact it had little relevance to their life...  it has gained the status of a relic, and is doubly collectible.

The amount of available 'art' on the market is overwhelming.  I grew up thinking I 'knew' every important painting and its location.  Now I can't keep track of the museums opening globally, everyday, in every city... in multiples.  As old collectors die, their holdings are acquired or donated to institutions so we find ready-made collections within collections.  Upcoming artists are promoted and marketed with a vengeance; the Warholian model has been extended-- where he put the soupcan ironically on the canvas, now the art is almost simultaneously produced as skateboards and T-shirts-- coffee mugs and umbrellas-- phone cases and sneakers, toys and souvenirs.  Art advisors and gallerists, like stockbrokers, navigate options for their clients and guarantee their full art wallets remain so.  Artists run their studios like a business, maximizing output, manipulating sales, jumping from gallery to installation to institution, merchandising their product and becoming overnight superstars.  It takes years for a tree to grow tall, but some  seven-figure art is produced in an hour.  It seems wrong.  But the art audience is massive, and buyers are impatient and greedy-- insatiable.  Facile art suits the competitive 'soft' market.  Collecting is epidemic.

The 'look' of contemporary art, to me, has a certain built-in clock.  I can smell obsolescence the way I never trusted those beanie babies children begged for in the 1990's.  It's all too easy-- too facile.  Part of the beauty of being--say, a record collector in the 1960's-- was the chase.  Ask Keith Richards-- how he came to America and went to record shops.  Things were rare-- things were treasured.  They were listened to and looked at and loved, the way I loved the tiny glass animals in my Eldorado box.

I am finished collecting, now.  It is a time in my life to take stock of what I have and look at things.  Besides the art, I'm not sure anyone will appreciate my home 'museum', but I have grown to understand the soul of objects and the words they elicit.  My friends tease me because I still don't have a mobile phone... but I spend many hours outside observing and listening to the city.  I come home and am embraced by modest things I find beautiful and compelling.  It is enough.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Collections-- Part 1

Saturday afternoons for years I work at a gallery.  Generally it is quiet there- people come in one or two at a time, spend time thoughtfully in what are generally minimal displays, occasionally engage in a brief dialogue, and leave.  But for the past month, visitors have come in droves more or less, brought in by review after review of a place that is usually off the press radar.  What brings the attention is a small show of selected collections of seven artists.  Each grouping has been carefully curated from objects or small precious things from their respective homes.  In one case, the articles are gathered posthumously from the apartment of a deceased photographer who was apparently kind of a hoarder.  These are grouped on a wall in the front of the gallery-- close together and informally, as they might be in one's home-- simultaneously thoughtfully and not thoughtfully, so they seem a bit spontaneous and natural, in direct contrast to the clean minimalism of the gallery.

The number of people attracted to this random grouping has been astonishing.  I mean, it looks a bit like any vaguely middle-class bohemian parlor-wall-- things painted a bit amateurishly, things of vague value from thrift shops and flea markets...  of a certain period.  Week after week, people gaze in through the glass and sigh at this wall-- with a kind of nostalgia-- young people, well-dressed people; some even ask prices, which are irrelevant to this non-selling exhibition.  What they are seeing is a kind of diorama of this now-deceased person's home, of his aesthetic.   And they respond.

Each of the artists in the show is a collector... of things-- of art, toys, objects... souvenirs.  In a way it is a voyeuristic non-verbal biography of their personal culture-- a portrait of what they love, what comforts them or reminds them-- what inspires and excites them.  True artists are pioneers.  They discover things-- places-- in a different way.  They see a landscape and go home and paint horizontal geometry; they hear a siren and a crash and they compose a violent symphony.  They find a rock or some random object, and they transform it-- they absorb and transcend.

Over the last twenty years or so, people's homes in this city have become more and more minimal.  Technology allows them to live without paper; many have renovated apartments and removed books, records--- things.  Their lives are hard-edged and their lines are clean.  They have windows onto the city, gadgets which fit into drawers and low-tables with only a single book or object.  Clutter has become something to be shunned or hidden.  Closets are organized; there are experts who assist  with this process-- they oversee the discarding and paring-down of the unnecessary.   iPods and phones hold thousands of albums; we no longer need the packages.  Thrift shops are crammed with donations; some have recently declined to accept books; they are glutted with material.

But I have noticed-- inspiration has changed.  The things that 'drive' contemporary art have changed.  Art is about walls, or computers, or animation-- or concepts.  Art is packaged, marketed, less 'hands-on' and more mechanized, impersonalized.  It is digital-- animated, computer-generated.  It has ideas-- large ideas-- but less soul, less heart.  Some of it is created on a huge scale--  cute things-- toys, animals-- that tower over us, as though these 'soft' things are only culturally relevant when they are bloated or monumentalized.  We are jaded and spoiled and cannot 'see' the obvious.  We are adult children and are emotionally unsophisticated from the constant bombardment of phone-stimuli.  The New York Times recently revealed staggering numbers of adults who admit to sleeping with a stuffed toy.  The culture of pets and domestic animals is larger than ever; we sublimate and transfer and rely on our animals for affection.

So maybe this is a clue to the reception of the show-- that these same people who have eliminated the clutter in their lives, but maybe not the longing of their hearts-- are looking at this wall with a kind of recognition.  It represents domestic nostalgia-- a version of visual comfort and aesthetic calm-- like seeing a wall of small landscapes, or a display of rocks... a row of vases, or a garden of things that have grown, things that are interesting to see and aesthetically pleasing.  Inspiring and spiritually nourishing.  Beautiful and not inaccessible, the way museum art can be-- but small and personal and meaningful, the way life and 'collecting' used to be.   They find a connection, here-- they look and look, they ask prices, and standing in front of the wall seems to change their 'speed'.

When my son's friends came into the gallery to see this well-received show, they  remarked that the 'wall' looked just like my apartment.  Millenials come into my home these days and marvel at the number of paintings on the wall, and the rows of books-- the shelves of vinyl and the instruments.  They look around and sometimes they take down a book and absorb themselves.  Sometimes I remind myself I am not going to live forever and I must begin to sift through my possessions.  This is difficult for me; it is a life lived here--- my things, my friends, my nonhuman children-- my muses and my comfort.  Yes, there is a degree of relative clutter, but there is also a kind of soul.  The room is not about the space but what defines it-- the content.   This is my life... my collection, my object-family.

The exhibition ended on Saturday.  It gave me a little hope that gallery-visitors and cultural trendsetters are maybe beginning to thaw just slightly from the techno-cold aesthetic that has defined interior design and contemporary office decor.   These people who paint their skin and own animals and live in 'clean' spaces are beginning to let humanity in... a bit of history, nostalgia-- vinyl, materials... the thrill of a forgotten thrift-shop painting.  Take out your earphones once in a while and talk to an older person-- listen to the sound of things, and find your passion, your own unique collection.  You will be rich in ways you have yet to uncover.

 (To be continued)