Toland Grinnell's sculptures simultaneously ridicule and arouse consumer lust. With meticulous artistry and a distinctly Victorian sense of style, Grinnell constructs portmanteau objects that elevate the banal to emblems of absurd luxury.
In Grinnell's skilled hands, a doggie bed becomes a gilded Louis Vuitton-style piece of high-end decor. A hamster cage expands into a split-level penthouse complete with rodent-size sex toys, top-shelf booze and brand-name entertainment systems playing classic gangster films. A druggie equestrian's fantasy case comes with tiny horse-grooming tools as well as a gold roach clip and a glimmering coke mirror. And everything is designed for portability, efficiently fit into plush carrying cases that range in size from small valises to large steamer trunks.
The Manhattan-based Grinnell was born in 1969, studied at Centro Lorenzo de Medici in Italy and received a BA from the School of Visual Arts in 1994. He exhibited at the gallery of New York dealer Stephano Basilico before moving to Sperone Westwater in 2000. He received a certain amount of popular attention -- People Magazine named him as one of its "50 most beautiful people" in 1999 and the New York Times Magazine included him and his wife, Vanity Fair beauty editor SunHee Grinnell, in an article on New York power couples. In 2000, he was commissioned by The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas to design an enormous fountain, which he crafted in the frothy, opulent style of Nicola Salvi's Fontana di Trevi. He had his first solo show at Mary Boone Gallery two years ago.
Nine new sculptures, which range in price from $10,000 to $25,000, are currently on view at Boone's Fifth Avenue space in a show titled "Mazes, Traps and Runways," Jan. 8-Feb. 28, 2004. The exhibition proves that Grinnell can ignite consumer desire with works that also stimulate inquiries into the complex, conflicted relationship between consumer fetishism, global economics and contemporary morality.
Ana Finel Honigman: Are your wealthy collectors aware you are critiquing consumerism?
Toland Grinnell: The majority of people who buy my work have a good sense of humor, particularly about money. Not all my collectors are self-made, but they tend to understand the notion of struggle and are articulate about the inherent problems of distinguishing right from wrong in our contemporary material culture. They tend to also have an intelligent awareness of the way the world functions as a marketplace.
AFH: Would you categorize your work as satire?
TG: Yes, if satire means being sophisticated enough to know something is wrong but realizing that trying to change it may not have any impact at all.
AFH: What has an impact?
TG: Commerce. I am fascinated by the ways that our innate desires develop through a really slick chain of events causing everyone to think big tires are cool or toasters are better when they resemble car radios.
Our desire structures are just incredible. In every culture, humans eat, drive cars and like nice shit. It is all the same nexus of products and meaning but the way we do things in each culture is slightly different. My work is emblematic of these constructs and variants.
AFH: Do you think art can successfully critique mass culture or does it just reflect the way our desire is stimulated and manipulated?
TG: Recently I took part in a private panel discussion of artists brought together to openly discuss the relationship between contemporary art and commerce. At one point, this guy who had started out as a filmmaker and video artist and now makes short films for MTV got so worked up, he went in to this long description of how the market research budget, allotted to work done before they actually make anything, might be bigger than the entire Whitney acquisition budget for a year. That comment really emphasized to me that art enjoys hiding in the cultural middle of nowhere, while corporations are actively making work that most people care to see.
AFH: How does this all relate to your sculptures where you are re-packaging products intended to generate brand loyalty in young children, like Brandscape (Mr. Clean), a toy cleaning-set decorated with the Mr. Clean logo, or La Newborn, a newborn infant doll?
TG: It's disturbing that you can go into a toy store and find products on the shelf that you could also buy at a Duane Reade. For years, I've been collecting toys that are branding toys. The vice president of marketing for Mr. Clean would tell you that they chose to license their logo to a toy manufacturer in order to bring comfort to parents, so parents could recognize a trusted brand and feel confident that giving that toy to their kids would reflect positively on their parental decision-making process. But intuitively, as a human, everyone has to know that there is something spooky about marketing brands to kids.
AFH: This trend also says something frightening about the way contemporary America is restructuring its class system. These toys are completely non-aspirational, in contrast to, say, "Lawyer Barbie" or another toy that might inspire children's career goals past the lowest possible level. Do you think La Newborn is selling teen pregnancy?
TG: That's an interesting question. When I saw it, I was thinking, "I'm in a huge store and there's a beautiful black baby behind glass." I was immediately drawn to that doll because of the packaging, which I reproduced exactly, though it was cardboard and I made it more upscale to draw you in closer. All I added was a gold chain around the baby's neck. I think that La Newborns, or "L.A. Newborns" as half the people call it (which is funny, since the gold chain is so L.A. macho), is just like adoption. My wife and I have four friends that have all adopted or who are paying to have surrogate parents for their baby. One couple we know shopped online for the mother.
AFH: Well, couples do meet online.
TG: Let's not go there, but yeah. I'm pro-adoption, I mean, who the hell could be against it? But, when I looked at these dolls, I couldn't help but think that these kids were being sold as commodities.
AFH: Would you say that your sculpture 28 Baby Girls, where you create a souped-up version of a suitcase for baby-smuggling, inspired by a recent real-life case in China, signifies third-world country governments' reluctance to rationalize what has become second nature in the U.S. and Europe?
TG: The thing that really struck me when I saw this story in the Associated Press was its magnitude. There were 28 baby girls, not two or three. A person obtaining, transporting and selling 28 infants at a time has a small business. I was wondering whether those babies were intended to end up in a Western marketplace. 28 Baby Girls was based on a truly sad and grotesque story that I hoped would evoke an emotional and intellectual reaction to the marketplace and the real way it functions.
AFH: You mean it functions by selling fake babies and real ones the same way?
TG: Yes, toy manufacturers created La Newborn to solicit an emotional reaction. I see a connection between the baby doll on the wall and the criminal sale of infants. Both are in the same realm of twisted concepts.
AFH: Ethnic fetishism is inherent to both pieces because you use a black baby in La Newborn and the baby girls were Asian from a third-world country.
TG: At any dinner party where people are discussing adoption, someone will say, "Asian babies are so adorable."
AFH: There is a consumer demand, which is different from the way art functions. At this moment, in every art school, there is some kid making a monochrome painting. Isn't that slightly offensive?
TG: Yes, very. In a world where you're inundated by some of the coolest shit that's ever been invented in the history of mankind at a rate, speed and magnitude that's unparalleled in the whole of human existence. Why the hell paint blue? Just blue. . . . It is so retarded.
AFH: Do you think the meaning in your work is always transparent?
TG: Usually, though there is one piece at Mary Boone called Broken Poles, for which you need context.
AFH: Is the secret that they are stripper poles?
TG: Yes, the poles are salvaged from a defunct strip club in Queens, but there is more. Recently, I had a long discussion with a group of sophisticated New Yorkers about Paris Hilton's porno video. They all thought that it heralded the end of her 15 minutes but I think it is the true beginning of her celebrity status.
After this conversation, I came back to the studio and started thinking about how, from some perspective, all adult behavior is tempered by potential sexual innuendo and connotation.
The awareness of that, as the next and only tier to fame, is embedded somewhere in the Broken Poles piece, even though it is designed to look like a Minimalist artwork. It was actually inspired by Broken Kilometer by Walter De Maria.
AFH: So, aside from needing to know the sociological context of the poles in order to access the meaning to that piece, you also need to understand the vocabularies of Minimalism and Earthworks.
TG: I've always been disdainful of Earthworks, and the parallel between the two is really ironic. Broken Kilometer really had meaning in its time because pre-Internet, pre-video camera, pre-high-speed connection, the distance between things was meaningful. It was an artwork about measuring, and I think that my work, the Broken Poles, where the poles from a strip club are cut in sections equal to those in De Maria's piece, is also about measuring but from a cultural, instead a spatial, perspective. I figure, somewhere between those two reference points lies the real nature of the artwork.
AFH: One part of the exhibition has works dealing with impoverished childhoods, like the logo-laden toys, and the other is devoted to self-indulgent, decadent adults, represented by the opulent hamster homes and stripper poles.
TG: In a certain sense, the show spans the course of human life from childhood to old age, from the Rodent Addiction System to Bone. Bone was made by this incredible company called Judith Leiber, which covered this dog bone I'd bought at PetCo with 6,000 pieces of hand-made Swarski crystal. I look at it as a pure statement of Pavlovian consumerism. Because it sparkles, you want it, but at the same time you're basically immediately aware that it's completely trite and useless, functionless, and from another perspective its even creepy. Still, you can't not want to have it, touch it, covet it. If Michael Jackson took a dump in the corner, you'd end up with this thing. That's what Michael Jackson's doody would look like. That is my favorite piece in the show.
AFH: Do you foresee yourself doing more collaborations with designers or companies like Judith Leiber in the future?
TG: I think artists should have a closer relationship with commerce. In a world where you're inundated with product and salesmanship, the things that stick out are the things that are odd. Artists are one of the few groups actually in business of trying to create odd scenarios for their work. Artists' minds and eyes look at the rest of the culture. We are uniquely suited for that task.
AFH: Isn't a close relationship with commerce corrosive to creativity? Aren't there inevitable conflicts of interest?
TG: I would rather fantasize about a better world where artists' day jobs are creative. If artists give some creative juice away to someone else it doesn't detract from their own work. I don't feel like my creativity is going to run dry.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.