Art Me Up: Learning to collect & critique with the SVA

Portrait 5 (Stephens) sold for $27K at the Phillips d Pury March 2011 Auction.
All proceeds went to
  See what it was up against and my "review" below.
I've just completed my 6-week SVA Trends in Photography and Contemporary Art : What's Happening Now mini-course. It's an indulgent immersion in the art world - feasting your eyeballs on everything from priceless icons of the modern art world to the proverbial "my 6 year old could do that." (Ah, but your 6-year old, my friend, is not named"Warhol"). 

We got to see the galleries of Chelsea, the Upper East Side and the Lower East Side, plus attend a Phillips de Pury "mid season" auction preview and a couple of Armory Arts Week shows. 

Some of us were budding collectors.

"The Confess Project": The gang check out artist Margot Lovejoy's confessions on the surreal
"receivers" at Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, 29 Orchard St -  "The Confess Project

 "Look, and look, and look," said our teacher Brian Appel. "You will develop a really good eye for what you like and what's good."

Some were budding artists - "send along a jpg of your work, one a week, plant the seed."

Others were established artists, exploring new avenues to share their work, like photo-collagist Jenny Krasner, cosmonaut-loving painter  Lyndsea Cochrane and photographer Jada Fabrizio. I loved Jenny's work so much I blogged about it here. Bah! Who needs Warhol? Just turn to your SVA classmate!

We learned that a "unique" is almost always preferable to an "edition", if you can afford it. We even had a "term paper" to submit (at a Community Class? C'mon!) - a review of any piece of art we saw during the course.

Mine is below. Feel free to grade it, remembering that they never built a monument to a critic.

March 2011
Art Review by Lynette Chiang

Portrait 5, (Steven) – Phillips de Pury “Under the Influence”

This portrait, the fifth in a series, is at once a celebration of the attainment of immortality through fame, and a Memento Mori, with each iteration of the portrait unveiling a step on the subject's inexorable march to death.”

The casual art appreciator could skim the above caption and noddingly accept its worthiness. A second glance reveals it as piece of utter tripe - precisely what TV comedian Steven Colbert (The Colbert Report), probably intended.

If you haven't already seen the satirical skit that accompanies this work, it goes like this: on his show, Colbert tries to persuade famous art collector Steve Martin to buy the unremarkable Kinko's portrait, challenging him to declare it “art.”

When Martin demurs, Colbert summons three seminal artists on camera to do their magic.

First up, the “father of minimalism”, Frank Stella, whose work goes for millions on the auction block, glances at the painting and, scripted or otherwise, proclaims it “art.”

Next, street artist and creator of the controversial Obama HOPE poster, Shepherd Fairey, “repurposes” it with spray paint and his signature OBEY stencil.

Last, controversial photographer Andreas Serrano, who (disappointingly) doesn't urinate or defecate on it, simply doodles away with a sharpie - and signs it.

Is this now art? Colbert asks Martin, who doesn't budge, but concedes that the tricked-up portrait “should now do well” at auction.

It all makes great armchair entertainment, while posing a serious question – what makes something art, and more importantly, art worth buying?

Is it art because someone famous (Stella) says so? Is it art when repurposed by a pioneer of the repurposing genre (Fairey)? Is it art because it's brought to you by controversy, and the more odious, the better (Serrano)?

According to Stella, “if you look for art, you will find it,” throwing the doors wide open. Stella can make those statements – he's a stupendously rich and famous member of the “P” volume of World Book Encyclopedia.

Some will be offended by Colbert's buffoonery, others will re-think their overpriced framed limited editions on their walls and ask, “should I have paid what I did for this?”

The question – and answers - aren't new.

Street artist Banksy had the final laugh at the art pedagogy with his gilt-framed painting “I can't believe you morons buy this shit” auctioned at Sotheby's for a college education.

Damien Hirst Inc, trumping struggling anatomy students with his filleted shark in formaldehyde, now instructs his army of assistants to churn out innocuous foil butterflies by the thousands and collects his checks while relaxing in one of his rural estates.

The grand, fleeting works of Christo also come to mind, memorialized only by photos and a paper trail spanning years of background permits and negotiations.

Colbert has been satirizing the art world for quite a while, this being the fifth “art me up” project where he's known for stripping sacred cows bare to the point of being declared “unfunny.”

It might have been enough for Portrait 5, together with its mixed-media mish mash of the framed Kinko print, the skit, celebs, charity and social commentary – to be declared a work of art.

As if Colbert wasn't so sure, all proceeds of the sale will go to, his favorite charity and one that promotes literacy in schools. Notably, the prestigious auction house Philips de Pury, which is gleefully displaying the portrait in its premier chamber, will not charge a buyer's premium on this work. In fact, the debonair chairman de Pury himself even consented to appear in a cringeworthy follow-up skit where Colbert asked if the portrait was inspiring the same kind erection as de Pury's first Renoir …

At any rate, the cause is so good, the art doesn't have to be.

UPDATE: Portrait 5 sold for $27,000 at the March 8 auction.

Terence Koh circumnavigating salt at Mary Boone 

Classmate Lev with his own performance piece... 

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