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Artnet News
Sept. 9, 2010 

Puerto Rico to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale? Could it be true? The announcement that the Puerto Rico-based artist-team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla would represent the United States at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 promises -- faintly, once again -- to bring questions of U.S. colonialism to the celebrated global art show.

Born in Philadelphia and Cuba respectively, the second-generation conceptualist duo have been living and working in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico for a lifetime. Calzadilla has a BFA from Escuela de Artes Plásticas, San Juan (1996), and they have always had extraordinary support from the island’s collectors and cultural institutions.

Puerto Rico is, of course, a colony of the United States, and has been one for close to 100 years. That status puts Puerto Rican residents into a kind of political limbo. Puerto Rico can participate in the Miss Universe pageant, but it has no representatives in the U.S. Congress or at the United Nations, and cannot enter into treaties with other countries. And of course Puerto Rican residents can’t vote for president of the U.S.

In terms of the art world, the situation is equally outrageous. Puerto Ricans may be happy that they're taking over the U.S. Pavilion -- the colony is colonizing the colonizer -- but many think that Puerto Rico should have its own Pavilion, and it doesn’t because it is not really a free country. Much Puerto Rican art is lumped into a "Latino" category, and that makes a mess of museum purchases, auctions and, above all, identity politics.

Allora & Calzadilla can be expected to tackle exactly such questions at Venice, i.e., "examining contemporary geopolitics through the lens of spectacular nationalistic and competitive enterprises such as. . . the Biennale," in the words of Indianapolis Museum of Art contemporary art curator Lisa D. Freiman, who made the winning proposal to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The duo has appeared in the Biennale before, contributing a work to the general exhibition in the Arsenale in 2005 (under no flag, representing only themselves). This well-received effort was titled Hope Hippo, and consisted of a life-sized sculpture of a hippopotamus made of mud, upon which sat a volunteer reading a newspaper -- and blowing a whistle whenever he or she encountered a story of social injustice.

Allora & Calzadilla also know how to exploit the historical moment. One of their seminal video works is Under Discussion (2005), which features a kitchen table, flipped upside-down and outfitted with motor, navigated by Diego over blue seas. A metaphor for social and political uncertainty in Vieques after the U.S. Marines ceased military operations there, the video was widely understood in Puerto Rico as a denunciation of the island’s colonial status -- which is seen by many as both a source of oppression, and of economic opportunity.

Under Discussion had particular resonance on the island thanks to the cue it took from a popular late-‘90s late-night comedy show No Te Duermas, in which a poor family customized a mattress as a fishing boat. Of course, controversy is not foreign to Allora & Calzadilla either. In 2005, they were accused of plagiarizing Lara Favaretto’s E' uno spettacolo (2004) (you can read more about the controversy here).

-- Pedro Vélez

How’s this for a curatorial challenge? Put together a show dedicated to the overlooked work of an American feminist artist at a large museum, and then, as an encore, break one of the show’s star pieces out of jail? That is the trick pulled off by Tracy Fitzpatrick, who is helming "American People, Black Light" at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y., a gathering of the early paintings of African-American feminist artist Faith Ringgold, Sept. 11-Dec. 19, 2010. With just days to go before the opening, Fitzpatrick has gotten approval from the warden to release a key Ringgold mural, For the Woman’s House, from Riker’s Island, where it had been languishing.

The 8 x 8 ft. work was commissioned for the prison’s Women’s House of Detention in 1971, and hung at Riker’s until the prison became all-male in 1990, at which time it was whitewashed and moved to a basement. At a certain point, it had been slated for destruction, prompting a personal intervention from the artist to save it. In 1999, the department of corrections had the mural restored, and it now leaves the prison for the first time for the Neuberger show.

For the Woman’s House occupies a key place in Ringgold’s career. It is described as her "first feminist work," and marks a break from the earlier pieces highlighted in the Neuberger show, which focused more on race. The mural was based on interviews with inmates about stereotypes of women and what barriers they would like to see overcome. It depicts a female president, a female basketball player, a female priest and a female drum player, among other things.

In a move that is either totally bizarre, or all too telling, depending on who you ask, Lea Weingarten (formerly Lea Fastow), wife of convicted Enron swindler Andrew Fastow, seems to be carving out a new life for herself in the glamorous world of art consulting. According to Houston’s Culturemap, Weingarten helms the firm Contemporary Connoisseurs, which advises "educational institutions, companies and interior designers" on purchases of modern and contemporary art. Weingarten has also just curated a show of sculptor Libby Black at Houston’s Peel Gallery, Sept. 10-Oct. 16, 2010 (incorporating luxury brands, the works are described as investigations of "privilege").

Weingarten is the daughter of a wealthy Houston real estate developer, but worked for a time at Enron as the company’s assistant treasurer. Her association with the then-glamorous company led her into the art world. She was asked to fill Enron’s seat on the board of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, where she made friends with art collector Jeanne Klein, with whom she went on to organize the De Menil Collection’s "Menil Contemporaries" program. She also headed up Enron’s celebrated acquisitions committee -- though she was able to acquire less than a dozen works before the company collapsed, in one of the most infamous corporate bankruptcies of all time. The art was later sold at auction to pay creditors [see "Art Market Watch," May 16, 2003].

Both Lea Weingarten and Andrew Fastow were shown to have taken millions of dollars in kickbacks related to Enron’s shady dealings, while Andrew was the architect of many of the off-book investment vehicles that brought the company down, according to USA Today. One former colleague said Fastow "set the pace for the Machiavellian culture at Enron." Weingarten herself spent a year in prison for tax fraud, but was released in 2005. Despite having changed her name, she remains married to Fastow, who is due for release next year. With her new success in the art world, it seems likely he will have a well-appointed home to come back to.

Ace art-market journalist Sarah Thornton has just completed a magisterial investigation of the market for artworks by Damien Hirst, including a look at the two-day Sotheby’s London auction of 223 Hirst lots on Sept. 15-16, 2008, totaling the equivalent of $200 million. According to the new report, which appears unbylined in the Economist, major buyers included Kazakh mining magnate Alexander Machkevitch, who purchased six lots for a total of £11.7 million, and Italian designer Miuccia Prada, who spent £6.3 million for three works.

Another big supporter of the Hirst market is Alberto Mugrabi and his family, which told Thornton that they own 110 Hirst works, and that they had offered $35 million for his diamond-covered skull, originally priced at $100 million (the offer was declined). Thorton also reports that Hirst’s recent "End of an Era" exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York was completely sold out, for over $30 million, with the Broad Art Foundation buying the mural-sized cabinet filled with rows of artificial diamonds.

Despite all these big sales, Thornton reports that the secondary market in Hirst works is notably sluggish, with the average auction price for a Hirst work dropping from $831,000 in 2008 to $136,000 in 2010 (the source for some of these figures is Artnet’s signature Artnet Market Reports). A Sotheby’s spokesman admits that the house is offering fewer Hirst works in its sales, "because it can’t meet its consignors’ price expectations."

Once the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission installed mini-video-screens in all NYC yellow cabs, it was only a matter of time before artists moved to take over this new venue. And sure enough, Tehran-born artist Amir Baradaran is debuting "Transient," a series of 40-second-long video installations in 6,300 taxicabs, running Sept. 9-15, 2010 -- which should reach approximately 1.5 million passengers.

What kind of videos? No comedy or picturesque beauty, but rather "shots of a driver’s steady gaze in the rear-view mirror or through the plastic partitions." That should go over well! The project is sponsored by AME Projects, which is founded by Nazy Nazhand, a sometime contributor to this magazine. For images and more info, click here.  

The Joan Mitchell Foundation has announced the 15 recipients of its 2010 MFA Grant Program, which awards $15,000 to each winner via an anonymous process of nomination and jury review. The winners are Molly Anderson (Tulane), Janet Bruhn (Virginia Commonwealth University), Micah Gaw (Ohio State), Michel Droge (Maine College of Art), Patricia Fernandez (Cal Arts), Rema Ghuloum (California College of the Arts), Erik Gonzalez (Yale), Kristin Haas (U. Wisconsin - Milwaukee), Eric Kniss (UNC Greensboro), Jon Lee (Syracuse), Caitlin Lonegan (U. Cal Los Angeles), Cobi Moules (School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University), Brian Porray (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), Ashley Shellhause (Miami U.), Michael Sirianni (U. Illinois at Chicago). To date the foundation has awarded 162 MFA Grants.

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