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Artnet News
June 11, 2009 

Is art a good investment? Yes, if you make money. Or no, if you end up in court. The latter seems to be the result for two art lovers who teamed up to buy a dozen paintings by the celebrated Russian-American artist Alexander Melamid for a total sum of $1.2 million, with the apparent plan to exhibit the works and sell them at a profit, establishing a high-priced market for the pictures.

The scheme might have paid off had the art-market recession not intervened. Now, despite a pair of shows at Forum Gallery in New York and Los Angeles, it remains unclear whether any of the paintings have sold at all, according to the artist, and his two investors have blocked him from having a new exhibition this summer at Phillips de Pury & Co. in London, both in the auctioneer’s own premises and at the firm’s sponsored space at the Saatchi Gallery.

The show, to have been titled "Oh My God," was scheduled for May 11-June 12, 2009, and was to feature a cycle of paintings of religious leaders, nuns and saints interspersed with portraits of Russian oligarchs and a self-portrait of Melamid as glowing, white divinity. Phillips announced the postponement of the show on May 20 with a terse, one-line press release.

Needless to say, Melamid is not happy about the situation. In addition to filing a court action against the principals in New York State Supreme Court, accusing them of "breach of contract, fraud and wrongful interference with my exhibition," Melamid is happy to refer to them as "sharing the same traits -- stupidity, cupidity and incompetence. And one more, insolence." According to Melamid, the two men even asked an Ohio court to enjoin the artist from painting for seven years.

It all began back in 2005, when Jeffrey Hoffeld, who is currently assistant dean of the New York Studio School, and Neil K. Rector, an insurance consultant from Columbus, Ohio, approached Melamid seeking to purchase 12 paintings by him from his "Hip-Hop Series," a group of large, Old Master-style portraits of hip-hop icons such as 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg. The two men, who incorporated their art business as Russian Collections Ltd. and Russian Collections Management LLC, claimed that they could resell the paintings for as much as $450,000 each, according to Melamid’s court filing (the asking price at Forum Gallery, Melamid says, was $200,000 apiece).    

Apparently, Hoffeld and Rector feared that Melamid’s London show would undercut the market for the artist’s work that they were trying to establish. According to their agreement, Melamid is required to offer any additional paintings in the "Hip-Hop Series" first to Russian Collection Ltd., and if subsequently offered for sale to other parties, the paintings must be priced at least 90 percent of the "highest retail prices reasonably being charged" by the two investors or their gallery.

Melamid told Artnet News that he would have sold the London paintings for $80,000-$150,000, but he said the pair insisted that these works had to be priced at $270,000 each. He suggested that in fact Russian Collections Ltd. had managed to sell none of the paintings at all, and thus that its claim of a "reasonable" price was inflated.

"I warned them that they would not be able to sell the paintings!" Melamid said during an interview in his Manhattan studio. "Not only are they incompetent, but they are aggressive. They will sue you until you drop dead!"

Melamid is not too bad off -- of the $1.2 million he was to be paid in the original agreement, he has received all but the final installment of $150,000, about $1,050,000. He has also paid a 25 percent commission to his agent, Mina Litinsky of the Sloane Gallery of Art in Denver. What’s more, the agreement between Melamid and the two investors expires soon -- Mar. 31, 2010 -- which might clear things up. Or it might not.

As for Russian Collections Ltd., an email from its attorney, Alan G. Starkoff, states that "Melamid has materially breached" his written agreement with the two investors, and that the company "is extremely confident in its legal position and accordingly, will pursue the various actions if necessary."

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed suit Tuesday, June 9, 2009, on behalf of the Troy, N.Y.-based Media Alliance, alleging that a conservative Troy official had used his powers to shutter an art show about the Iraq War last year.

At issue is Virtual Jihadi by Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal, who last year was in residency at Troy’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Bilal’s project is based on a videogame put out by Al-Qaeda called The Night of Bush Capturing in which players hunt down former president George W. Bush. That game was itself a hijacked version of a jingoistic American videogame, Quest for Saddam, which allows players to kill stereotypical Iraqi "terrorists." Bilal, whose own brother was killed in the Iraq War by a U.S. bombing, appropriated the Al-Qaeda version of the game, writing himself into it as a character who is recruited to become a suicide bomber out of grief over his brother’s death. According to the artist, Virtual Jihadi not only brings attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war, but also reveals "our own propensities for violence, racism and propaganda."

In March 2008, a showing of the work at RPI was shut down after campus Republicans organized a protest campaign, denouncing the school art department as a "terrorist safe haven." Following the closure, Steve Pierce, director of Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media (which is run by the Media Alliance), offered to allow Bilal to show the work and carry on his scheduled lecture about the issues it raised. This did not sit well with county assemblyman Robert Mirch -- also the city’s public works counselor -- who very publicly called upon the Sanctuary to withdraw its offer, even posting a press release on the official country legislature website accusing Virtual Jihadi of being "wrong, un-American and destructive." Mirch also took to a local radio show, proclaiming of the work that "in my heart and my mind I believe it’s terrorism" -- though he also said that he had neither seen nor planned to see it.

The show opened at the Sanctuary on Mar. 10, 2008, accompanied by a protest that Mirch helped organize and participated in. The following day, the art space received official warning from the city of several code violations, and the Sanctuary was shuttered until, among other things, its current doors -- 30-inches and 29-inches, respectively -- were replaced with new 32-inch doors. According to the NYCLU’s complaint, "Mirch used his powers to have the building closed, violating the Media Alliance’s First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, and its due process and equal protection rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments." The lawyers are asking that the court forbid the city from further harassment, and award damages.

Contacted by the Albany Times Union about the complaint, Mirch said that he hadn’t seen it, but suspected a "political motive." He is currently collecting signatures in an effort to get re-elected to the country legislature.

One important part of the 53rd Venice Biennale, June 7-Nov. 22, 2009, are the various honors bestowed on the participating artists and exhibitors. This year’s judging panel consisted of a rather eclectic set of art world luminaries: Artforum editor Jack Bankowski; post-colonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha; South Africa-born art historian Sarat Maharaj; University Iuav of Venice visual arts dean Angela Vettese; and Julia Voss, art critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Here, the highlights:

* The United States was triumphant in the National Pavilions category, taking the Golden Lion. The Philadelphia Museum of Art (and curator Carlos Basualdo), which organized the commanding retrospective of American original Bruce Nauman, expanding it to multiple venues in the city, can justly claim a good share of the credit. Writing in a blog for the New York TimesT Magazine, however, former Biennale curator Francesco Bonami saw global politics at work, notably the election of American president Barack Obama, hypothesizing that "the Obama effect has lifted the ban that during the Bush era made the U.S. pavilion ‘unfit’ for the award."

* The Golden Lion for "Best Artist" in the main curated show went to the German artist Tobias Rehberger, who designed a functional café outside the Palazzo del Esposizioni in the Giardini, with swirling, headache-inducing Op Art patterns and fragmentary mirrors. As Michael Kimmelman commented on the selection in the New York Times, "So much for gravity and introspection."

* The award for being young and hip -- that is, the Silver Lion for "Promising Young Artist" -- went to Nathalie Djurberg, the Swedish artist known for her Claymation films depicting fairytale-inspired scenes of cannibalism, sadomasochistic sex and bestiality. In Birnbaum’s "Making Worlds," she created an enchanted garden of giant ceramic flowers and mushrooms, interspersed with films showing spindly Claymation figures mutilating one another. In New York, Djurberg is represented by Zach Feuer Gallery.

* The committee also doled out a round of "special mentions," each a cutesy play on the title of the main show, "Making Worlds." The recreation of the late Brazilian artist Lygia Pape’s installation of golden threads at the Arsenale was given a "Remaking Worlds" mention; Elmgreen & Dragset were given a "Curating Worlds" honor for "The Collectors," the pair’s much-talked-about installation about a sinister "gay collector" at the Danish and Nordic Pavilions; Ming Wong was offered an "Expanding Worlds" mention for her representation of Singapore at the Singapore Pavilion; and Italian joker Roberto Cuoghi got a specially designed "Translating Worlds" citation for his audio installation at the Palazzo del Esposizioni, incorporating an interpellation of a Shanghai cabaret tune.

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