by Matt Friedman
genicon n. a sexual partner imagined by one who is dissatisfied with her actual partner
Art and Commerce, locked in unholy carnal embrace, keep their eyes closed and fantasize. Art imagines the body it grasps is Genius, while Commerce desires Virtue for a partner. Like everybody else, they stick together because there isn't anything better out there. Art wants Transcendence but will settle for Money. Business wants Legitimacy but settles for . . . A Lot of Money.
But the marriage (unholy or not, it is legal) of art and money, happy or not, has been a long one. The Renaissance itself was fueled by capital speculation; trade with the East opened the eyes and minds of Europe. And the exploration of the New World, a money making game, brought treasures from the corners of the earth to Europe. Eventually, the plunder overflowed the collections of exotica called Wunderkammern or "wonder cabinets," of the rich men who benefited from those adventures. So they built museums to house the take, and ordinary people started to wander in for a look. A couple of hundred years pass, and now the world is lousy with museums, which have gone from being merely the warehouses of treasures to the arbitrators of cultural quality.
Uscha Pohl's UP & CO comes in right about here, with a contemporary take on the fusion of art and commerce and a new "wonder cabinet" of its own. Commerce in UP & CO's production is played by high fashion. UP & CO is a snazzy fashion outpost/art gallery/publishing house/apartment, and it teeters across other divides as well. Times being what they are, it's not surprising to see several different enterprises stuffed into a single--as they say--spatial unit, but Pohl pushes the envelope on the quadruple conceptual threat artist paradigm.
An entrepreneurial spirit pervades UP & CO's murky space. In its nascent state, murky demarcation lines separated gallery space from the kitchen, the office, the bathroom (that had a door). Everything was poised in a state of transformation. Plastic sheets protected parts of rooms from other parts of rooms. Steel beams waited patiently along with photographic etchings behind the sofa for installation. There were paintings and pictures and photos on the walls, and there were T-shirts on the coffee table. Now it's all fixed up, but the ambiguity lingers.
In the center of the room a big wooden box perches on heavy duty coasters, hinged on one side. An oversized, stylized, steamer trunk; it defines a state of transition. The trunk is well made, but it isn't a particularly fussy piece of cabinet work. On its sides, big black letters spelled out "Supastore @ UP & CO." Supastore is Sarah Staton's mobile home/packing crate of art. Supastore pays homage to those 17th century "wonder cabinets" while finding connection with contemporary downscaled democratic art projects. Supastore, which began in London, contains an evolving collection of small work which has been slipped into the intricate drawer and shelf format of the cabinet. There is nothing intimidating about Supastore, once you figure out how to look at it. The work is all small and accessible, and the attitude goofy. The artwork is by a wide variety of artists, mostly European, known and unknown.
The Wunderkammern that Supastore echoes were designed basically to blow the mind. The currency they traded lightly in was the truth. What was and what wasn't real was not the subject of the objects, but the subtext. It didn't seem to matter much to contemporaneous observers whether or not the mermaid they were looking at was real, since there was no way of establishing truth. Things just as wild as mermaids, after all--narwhal tusks and thirty foot pythons--were quite real. It was the fabulous display of extraordinary objects, natural and human made, which was the spine of these cabinets. The spine of Supastore's appeal is not exoticism, but display itself; the organizing principle of the store is that an exhibition of art can be interested enough in finding an audience to pack itself up and make itself available anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Then there are the piles of T-shirts, part of the Suburban Genius fashion line designed by Jeremy Deller. The shirts come in a variety of looks, all hip, all vaguely subversive, from RAF logos bull's-eyeing breasts to camouflage green and blue, with red stenciled slogans like "Uberbabe" and "My Drug Shame." The shirts look like they will sell. In fashion, unlike the fine arts (with a few confounding exceptions), entrepreneurial behavior is not merely an ironic pose, it's practical.
That gap between the self-sufficient lassitude of Supastore and the earnest ambition of the piles of shirts underscores the weird and arresting slipperiness of UP & CO's meaning. Supastore, despite its user friendly design, doesn't really need you, because it doesn't really expect you to become a customer, only a viewer (although, with pieces priced upwards from $2, it does its best to be buyer friendly, too). It doesn't really need anything--it's already funded!--but it's there to help, should you avail yourself of its services. The T-shirts need you to buy them; they do you no good if you just look at them. You need to buy them to "get" them. Maybe that's the difference between art and commerce.
The difference, of course, is more apparent than real. One of the strangest connections between art and fashion revolves around fashion's superior understanding of the highly ambivalent, not to say schizophrenic, relationship between innovation and success. Success in fashion design, to be succinct, is the enemy of innovation. Truly progressive fashions are by definition financially unsuccessful: not enough people are wearing them to make a profit. Conversely, popular fashions are inherently no longer anywhere close to the cutting edge. It takes six months for a design to go through the production pipeline and come out as product. By that time innovative styles have moved on. Only fashion followers are wearing the "latest thing." The "latest thing" is an oxymoron. If you bought it off a rack, it ain't likely to be the latest thing.
The art world has never gotten this. In a way, it hasn't had to. The stakes are too low. Fine art, like hand knit scarves, is a cottage industry. A happy few get rich catering to the whims of the very wealthy, but mass production, the key to industrial strength money and therefore great cultural prominence, continues to elude art. Art defines itself proudly in opposition to the mercantile wiles of industry, but of course this is a patently delusional pose. It is as subject to its own screwy market forces as the car business. The only successful strategy is to opt out of the high finance business and revert to a fugitive populist self-assigned marginality. Commercial marginality, but not conceptual or ethical marginality. And not uninfluential. UP & CO gets it.
Brooklyn, New York