Not even contemporary art is immune to the buy-local movement. That shouldn’t come as a shock; the year is 2013. Of course there is a way to subscribe to a service that delivers fresh, local contemporary art to buyers’ doorsteps. Artists in cities across the country have launched community-supported art programs, saving local art lovers the fraught step of stopping by a gallery once a month to look at art.
Contemporary art may not be subject to the downsides of industrial farming or vertical integration or any of the other factors that drive the agriculturally conscious to buy directly from farmers, but Transformer’s ongoing survey of mail-order art-subscription services shows they can be every bit as political, and even more precious, as the fruit-and-veggies variety. Even the show’s title, “A modest occupation,” smacks of the same self-satisfaction that makes the locavore’s (otherwise correct) stance on eating locally so obnoxious.
Yet “A modest occupation”—which looks at art CSAs from San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Minneapolis, where the idea was born—reveals the ways in which a buy-local movement, or at least a subscription model, doesn’t much fit contemporary art. Without a heinous, unhealthy system to critique (which is what local farmers are up against in Big Agriculture), art CSAs are largely indulging in a practice of no real political substance. Which is fine—except that, as “A modest occupation” shows, the subscription model opens up problems of its own.
Many of the works in “A modest occupation” take the form of boxes, for reasons that ought to be clear (they arrive via mail). “Earth-Kiln-Bay-Kiln-Bay” by Presley Martin, made for a CSA called the Present Group, is a wooden box containing bricks from a project originating in Berkeley, Calif. Martin took stones that he discovered on the beach, then glazed and fired them to turn them white before returning them to the shore. Later, for this editioned series for the Present Group, Martin rereclaimed these bricks and shipped them off, extending the range of his performance. Yet the act of compartmentalizing and scattering these bricks interrupts the poignancy of his small-scale interventions in face of the Pacific Ocean. Martin’s Sisyphusian project becomes something smaller by mail—a little like watching an Ana Mendieta earth-body performance on a phone.
Kelly Kaczynski’s “Rock Collection (from a mountain)” (made for CSA Chicago) is another box, this one containing a delicate assemblage. A hand-cut wood piece containing materials like porcelain, salt, and felt and topped with a hand-cut mirror, it’s something along the lines of work by artist Joseph Cornell—or maybe a diorama with a warm Dwell interior-décor aesthetic. But unlike Martin’s box, Kaczynski’s project isn’t transformed even slightly by the act of mailing it. One surprise in this show is that more of the CSA artists aren’t making the act of mailing art a part of their concern.
Seemingly, the point of an art subscription service would seem to be to extend the feeling of connectedness and good stewardship, just as community-supported agriculture does. Cleverly, curator Abigail Satinsky (of the Chicago CSA Threewalls) has included works to suggest that CSA projects aren’t always feel-good. Eric Fleischauer’s “Universal Paramount” (made for CSA Chicago in 2011)—a print in which the word “YouTube” takes the place of the letters on the famous Hollywood sign—is as snide as this show gets. “Problems and Promises,” by Venice Biennale artists Allora & Calzadilla, is a blank book (made for The Thing Quarterly) bearing that title, like a diary. Yet the book is tethered to a single sneaker, hinting at something darker.
It’s only a hint, though. With the exception of Allora & Calzadilla’s piece and a ranting Robert C. Tannen print (made for The Drop/NOLA), there’s nothing in “A modest occupation” that you wouldn’t want to receive in the mail. The printed fabrics and handmade embroidery by Allison Smith, Amy Franceschini, and Jason Jägel (for Alula Editions) are typical of the clean Etsy feel that seems to rule in CSA land. (That’s true of D.C.’s own thriving CSA, Project Dispatch by artists Chandi Kelley and Rachel England, which isn’t represented in this show.)
The art market does terrible things to art, but Art Basel Miami Beach at its worst is no Tyson Foods. Similarly, setting up a CSA as an alternative in cities where the galleries struggle—and that’s every city represented here—is like setting up a food CSA to take aim at the farmers market. But there’s a drawback to the traditional gallery system that a CSA might address without cranking up the politics: Artists who don’t make commercially viable work often don’t get shown in galleries. The art CSA could be the distribution mechanism for getting those works out into the world—but the selections at Transformer are too careful and inoffensive. “A modest occupation” is all carefully culled bright green kale, and not enough deformed squash.