Michael Smith and Joshua White, Nov. 9-Dec. 30, 2001, at Christine Burgin Gallery, 243 West 18th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
A cheesy yellow vinyl trade-show banner hangs above the small, street-level space. It proclaims the presence of "The QuinQuag Arts and Wellness Centre Touring Exhibition: Artistic and Personal Growth in the Catskills Region," with an edge splattered with e-company logos. (Among these is Pseudo.com, the late lamented network of the art weird.)
In fact, we're at the Christine Burgin Gallery, where Michael Smith and Joshua White have installed a picture-perfect sales display for this duck-billed platypus of a business venture. A promotional video natters on, samples of merchandise line the walls, and a text-and-photo narrative display is tastefully lit with mini-gooseneck lamps.
According to the artists' promo, QuinQuag is an art colony founded upstate in 1950 by a wealthy New York bohemian. QuinQuag's resident artists were required to produce and sell craft objects, like hand painted tiles and rocking chairs, to give the colony the look of being self-sustaining.
Mike Smith, playing the role of gung-ho everyman entrepreneur (one he has assumed in his previous works), has purportedly bought the property after the founder's death. Now he's trying to leverage the colony's cultural cachet to spice up his cheesy "wellness centre" concept.
All this complex corporate intrigue is announced in a press release dated precisely one year ago, when, in the fevered flush of the dot-com boom, this hybrid congerie of concepts might have seemed somehow plausible as an investment prospect. Now of course it's obsolete in market terms.
Smith & White's work is a knowing collage of scraps of real history and new pieces done in 1950s and '60s period style by a large ensemble of artists hired for this production.
Among the canny allusions, Robert Motherwell's giant canvas Elegy to the Spanish Republic flashes by on the videotape "promotion" playing in the show. The painter is said to have painted one of the ceramic tiles QuinQuag is famous for; that's a tradition lifted from the Tile Club, a (real) 19th-century New York City artists' group.
QuinQuag is set in Woodstock, a town with a venerable heritage of artists' colonies. The fictional patroness founder of QuinQuag lives in a massive stone building that resembles a phalanstery, the central edifice in a Fourierist commune (there's one near Red Bank, N.J., built in 1843).
This is Smith and White's third installation, and here the sales pitch, always a cohering narrative element in the duo's previous works, has taken over. All is suborned to the job of convincing prospective investors and clientele to buy into QuinQuag. There is no habitus here, no worn office and shop setting. Instead, the site of artistic production is represented, in a queasy blend of commercial and historical rhetoric. The sales job is packaged to go as a traveling show, with empty crates sprouting straw in the back hallway.
This could be some hillbilly Etoy (the Swiss art group's e-commerce simulacrum), but the QuinQuag sales pitch is so hapless, so insufficient and ill-considered, that the exhibition dissolves like a lump of sugar in the viewer's regard. Deconstruction begins almost immediately as the puzzle taking shape is to figure out how the elements of the real have been put together to make the shabby surface of this scam.
For me the model of the future QuinQuag gives the game away rather too easily. It's built of children's colored building blocks with a Unisphere-like central monument crafted from what looks like tin foil. This part of the display mocks the entire conception as childish.
As a parody, a deft and knowing instance of comedic irony, Smith and White's conception is proof against the sour complaints that rise in my gorge.
While the putative commoditization of an artists' colony offends my religion (of art), one might prefer to read in this polished work of art a kind of message in a bottle from a future economic order. QuinQuag is all about failure. Places like Roycroft and Stickley, on the other hand, were collective corporate ventures that succeeded both esthetically and economically, while the show of peculiarly beautiful Shaker "gifts," now at the Drawing Center in SoHo, proves that art under the flag of the collective can be wondrous indeed.