Danica Phelps, Apr. 2-May 4, 2002, at LFL Gallery, 531 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
Rrrr, Conceptual Art. Danica Phelps' new show at LFL Gallery in Chelsea enlarges her project of meticulously documenting her artistic life. Phelps' diaries, elegantly scribbled in pencil, track her movements, meetings, activities and most saliently her transactions. It is at the intersection of money with her life that painting begins -- red and orange blocks of checks for expenditure and multi-hued green blocks for income. "Art money!" she enthuses as she paints green again.
In the new project -- "Artist, Collector, Curator, Spy" -- Phelps has gone around to galleries and photographed works she likes. These lush digital images she has organized into "exhibitions," like you can do at the Metropolitan Museum's website. She also collected reviews of all "her artists," and mounted them in thick sheaves on clipboards. Phelps then draws the photographs and arranges the drawings into other arrays with more evocative titles written on the wall.
While trying to figure out the system of the show, I listened as one of the LFL dealers sold Phelps' work. It seems that the artist copies each purchased work onto a sheet of tracing paper, affixing it to the diary at or near the point of sale. She'll also sell these diaries, leading to further tracings, even unto the seventh generation.
That's the "rrrr" above, to denote the major operations of Phelps' art -- reinscription, replication, retention and reification of her social world. Oh, and of course, an "a" -- appropriation.
When I first saw Phelps' work last year, I was excited by an artist dealing directly with the economy of art-making, a subject nearly every other artist avoids. In the classic obsessive manner of On Kawara or Hanne Darboven, Phelps has put her life and its labors on display. Unlike those ascetics, however, she does not foreswear the pleasures of drawing diverse sensual subjects, and her secondary sets of wood-mounted pictures are arranged into eccentric sprawling shapes.
Her work is delicate, domestic, intimist, standing in relation to classic first wave conceptual art much as Vuillard stands in relation to Courbet's realism.
I wanted to buy her portrait of Louise Lawler -- a copy of a photo, of course -- a second wave Conceptual artist deeply concerned with documenting the happenstance setups of art's systems of exhibition and acquisition.
But the reticence consequent upon my "reviewing mode" stopped me -- and something else: the thought that my purchase would become part of Phelps' system, the cash translating into those ecstatic little green strokes, was somehow ignoble, transforming the generally disengaged and, yes, alienated pleasure of art consumption into a kind of complicity with a rancid narcissistic taint. Or maybe it's just seeing that always deliriously impulsive act of buying in too clear a light...
What bothers me about Phelps' work is what attracted me to it in the first place. She deals with the artist's life and the economy of her production. But there is no conclusion, no comment and no direction other than a going on, the unfolding of a career.
Showing the system is enough; no comment is required. This Phelps shares with first-wave Conceptual art, motivated by Pop cool and Duchamp's esthetic indifference. But Phelps is far from indifferent or disinterested. This is the pleasure-loving art-intoxicated memoir of a lover.