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all photos: Dakota Fine

Arlington Arts Center curator and City Paper Arts Desk columnist Jeffry Cudlin has been tucking and taping his genitals for the past month to promote his latest project By Request.

Part performance/part collaboration/part exercise in egoism, By Request goes beyond mere mimicry of the D.C. art world’s social structure in order to show how an art scene is a product of the social relationships underlying its structure. Cudlin sheds light onto the personas within the scene and perpetuation of social myths while recognizing how the art world is a reflection of one’s highly subjective understanding of these social relationships.

In order to do this Cudlin gave a hand-picked group of curators and collectors, a B.S. survey to see what kind of art they preferred. He then paired them with local artists who best fit their tastes. The artists had to make art to satisfy the curatorial and collector set who are to assign grades to their tailor-made pieces that will hang publicly next to the work at the opening of By Request. Eventually (fingers crossed), these collectors and curators will then purchase their piece to hang at home- a perfect circle of production and consumption.

Oh yeah, and for some reason in preparation for the show, Cudlin has been prancing around the city, waxed and taped, as a drag version of local arts patron Philippa Hughes.

Hmmm…… Let’s see what all this is about shall we?

BYT: Your show is very complex, can we break it down?

Jeffry Cudlin: Whenever I try to explain to someone why the art world is the way that it is I reference Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of the Field of Cultural Production, which basically says that the art world looks the way that it does because people of authority and those involved in production are  jostling together and making these transactions- the art world is the way that it is as a reflection of who is involved in it at that very moment.

If I take this idea totally seriously then it seems to me that if I want to find out what DC art it about and why it is the way it is, then you should be able to just round up the right people, ask them questions and make art that’s targeted specifically towards them.

I should be able to have an ideal show. A show that is a) the ideal reflection of  D.C. b) the ideal in terms of selling- if the artists to do good job with the pieces then I’ll have guaranteed sales because each piece is tailor made for the collectors and c) it’s an ideal show to promote myself like crazy with because the stipulation I made for each artist in the show is that I have to be featured in the piece because while I didn’t make any of them, I’m brokering the transaction, my presence is there for full disclosure and transparency- in addition to self-promotion.

I started out with a 20 page survey which I gave to specific figures in the local art community to fill out asking useless questions like, ‘how do you feel about painterly technique’, ‘do you prefer film or digital’, some of the questions are taken from a personality test.

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BYT: Did you find out anything interesting about people from these surveys?

JC: No, not really. This show plays upon the idea that when you’re trying to get information from people you often end up with a lot of superficial gloss. When you give someone a 20 page survey about art and their tastes, they’re very aware of themselves- they start giving you answers that you don’t believe, because I know these people and I know their collections- and their answers aren’t matching up.

So I’m matching these collectors up with artists and I tell the artists to create the pieces based more on what they know about their collector personally or what they know of that person, as opposed to creating to satisfy what the collector wrote on their survey in a self-conscious moment. If a perception of a person is out there and that person has allowed that to continue, then maybe that perception of that person is more useful.

BYT: So you were mediating and manipulating the transaction between artist and collector, but did you find that whatever vision you had became compromised by the actions and participation of personalities and reactions of which you have no control over, these people are free agents.

JC: That’s what I would have hoped. The problem is that I haven’t had anyone grade their artwork yet. Each collector is going to grade the piece the artist has created specifically for them, and that score determines the success of the piece and the show. It’s going to be a ten point exit-poll addressing whether or not this piece satisfies the requirements of that particular collector’s taste. But this idea of a survey is just a game and you’re not supposed to really learn anything from it. I do want them to inform the show but I designed it so I would be in complete control. But these collectors do get to have the last laugh in that they get to decide if the work is ultimately any good.

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BYT: How did you choose people to participate? Why did you ask them and what do these people mean to you?

JC: There was definitely a limitation in terms of who I managed to get. Like I didn’t get someone from the Hirshhorn or this one person from the National Gallery, and I didn’t expect to get them. The people I got are people who are active in D.C. art, who are usually willing to get involved in things like curating shows and loaning works. So the people I got are people I know are active in shaping the discourse through working on projects and shows around town. We have collectors and curators who are interested in what people are doing in town- some curators are not so much, so what would I want those people involved in a show about the D.C. art scene when they’re not invested anyway.

BYT: You bring up this relationship between the local D.C. and the national art scene- and people being inward vs. outward focused. Can you tell me how D.C.’s art is different than other cities’ art based on its social climate and structure?

JC: I think it’s tricky. There’s definitely a character to the way things happen here. The contemporary art world is really so multivalent that you can pick a narrative and just run with it in terms of what kind of work you want to make and what kind of historic pedigree it has. That implies a certain degree of freedom but doesn’t ignore that there is a definite structure to it. A lot of the work that happens here relates to the kind of work that happens in New York.

A different person could pick a different group of artists and collectors in the same way that I did and come up with a completely different show based on their social world. So while I’m saying that this is an ideal D.C. art show, it’s only to the extent that I’ve picked a certain group of people who at the end of the day have interests that interest me. It ends up being highly subjective- it mocks being empirical and objective with these surveys and grades.

People like to think of the art market as functioning like any other market when the fact is that art markets behave in completely irrational ways and involve lots of belief. So a lot of things that end up happening and a lot of the decisions that are made by collectors and curators are based off of gut feelings and relationships- they have to rely on these things that aren’t necessarily sound methods for good business practices.

People also like to think of the art market as a black box- that you can control all the inputs into this black box and determine what then comes out of it. But at the end of the day, an artist is going to do what an artist is going to do. You can tell them what a collector wants and what’s selling- but most of the time Jason Horowitz is going to create a Jason Horowitz. If artists were really just producing for demand they would simply be artists’ assistants.

I think that what this project does is shed a light on all these facets of the art world and shows what we’re all doing in this collective enterprise.

BYT: Are you being critical of these relationships- or merely shedding light onto them? The fact that you’re dressing up as Philippa Hughes leads me to believe that your saying something about identity, personas and relationships within the art scene.

JC: A lot of people approach Philippa and say to her, ‘How do you feel that he’s making fun of you?’ And I don’t feel that’s what I’m doing at all.

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BYT: But by dressing up like Philippa you’re perpetuating a myth or an idea of her.

JC: Well they want it and I’m going to give it to them. We did a video shoot for the show and I dressed up as Philippa- playing on her party-girl-sexual libertine-surfer girl image. As Philippa I went into local art galleries and danced inside while all these gallery directors watched in various states of amusement and confusion. So to the gallery directors I was either Philippa or an artists cold calling a gallery to promote myself.

If you (the gallery director) want to accept that I’m Philippa, then I’m Philippa- I’m the idea of this person who is going to bring you (the gallery director) press and social status with a demographic you haven’t had. But if you’re a certain kind of gallerist you may find this distasteful and that the art scene is a distraction from the actual business of making art which I think is a misunderstanding of how art comes to be. So, you (the gallerist) may be uncomfortable with Philippa and what she’s doing.

But  I’m not Phillipa- on a different level I’m an artist trying to promote my show, instead of cold calling galleries with slides of my work, I’m showing up bringing them a fabulous dance party, which is ultimately social but just as awkward as walking into a gallery and trying to sell yourself with a portfolio of your work. It’s the same awkward transaction only rendered in an absurdist manner.

BYT: So you’re flaunting your own show at another gallery

JC: Well yeah, I’m promoting but on the other hand, I have a show at a non-profit gallery and these are all commercial galleries and I’m saying to them, ‘look at what you don’t have’.

BYT: Are you going to be Philipa at the opening?

JC: No I’m going to be Jeffry. I want the focus to be on what’s in the room and not what I’m doing. I don’t want to do a performance, and not to sound conceited but I think it’s going to be packed and me being dressed up like Philippa would add nothing to the show.

BYT: Do you think it’s going to be packed because you included a lot of people in the show?

JC: Yes, that was definitely part of the plan. This sounds crass, but if you get these artists to participate then it’s their show too! It’s like this project I did before, Ian and Jan, a Christopher Guest style piece about a pair of rediscovered Washington Color School artists that actually make terrible work. We had these important people write essays and speak in a documentary about Ian and Jan’s work, people like Color Field painter Sam Gilliam, it’s his show, it becomes an endorsement- it’s important to them so you should show up. Because, hey, if people in positions of authority thought it was important enough to actually play along, there’s something here for you.

BYT: It’s funny how you bring up affirmation from authority figures when at the same time you thumb your nose at them by dancing in their galleries or dismissing them as outward looking in a whole “I’m with a non-profit gallery, I don’t need you to accept me” kind of vibe.

JC: I mean, it’s that but it’s not that. The art world exists because of money. I work full time as a curator because I need someone to reward me for what I want to do, I love what I get to do as curator for the Arlington Arts Center- no other museum would let me do the things I do there. It’s like this private little place where if you want to do a show about trans-humanism and pay for 8 by 10 foot photos of drag queens, I have one person I have to talk to who then has to pitch it to the board. I want professional affirmation. In the art world you want that. And I think the only negative reactions, which I’ve only had a smattering of for the show, is from people who are like, “this is insider baseball, why can’t we talk about things that happen in the real world blah blah blah”- and I think that these people, for some reason think that the labor of art happens outside of the real world. People who are professionals in the art world are allowed a certain degree of outrageous self-promotion and flair that people who are lawyers and have “normal” jobs don’t have. That’s the only real difference. Working in the art world and being an artist is a job. Everyone still want professional affirmation.

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Jeffy Cudlin’s By Request opens tonight at Flashpoint Gallery
More information at BYT All City

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photo: Josh Cogan

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