Julian Hoeber & Alix Lambert December 2010
No Person May Carry a Fish into a Bar--An exhibition of Crime in Art:
The connection between crime and art has been fairly well worn in recent years. Even so, the approaches taken thus far have left a wide gap in serious thinking about the relationships between the creation of images and objects that function as art, and the acts of transgression that we understand as crime. Little has been done to flesh out the relationship between boundary breaking aesthetic strategies and actions which break social and legal boundaries. Perhaps even less has been done to examine how art can help us to define, contain and comprehend crime.
Notably, Mike Kelley presented works of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy as part of a major installation work, and Ralph Rugoff presented a major museum exhibition that used crime and forensics as a guiding principle for how to understand contemporary art. These two exhibitions exemplify what have become nearly clichéd approaches to art and crime. Kelley identifies and critiques the idea of artistic genius being connected of necessity to the pathological--that art and crime are aspects of a mind that thinks outside of society's norms. Rugoff on the other hand posits an understanding of conceptual works, performance documents and even forms of contemporary painting, through reading of a series of clues. In Rugoff's frame of reference, the drips from an action painting could be analyzed like blood spatter to reveal the movements of the painter.
Both of these ways of thinking about art and crime rely on an entrenched idea of what crime is. In some ways both rely on the good guys and bad guys model of the 1950s--for Kelley, although he critiques the association between pathology and creativity, there is a certain caché of coolness gained by the presence of the real criminality in the form of Gacy's painting, and to Kelley's chagrin, this sort of caché is what marked Kelley as a "bad boy" for so many years. On the other hand, Rugoff positions the viewer, and by extension the critic and curator, as Sam Spade-style detectives making sense of the dark and mysterious world of art.
But crime, if subjected to the same sort of rigorous examination that art has been for past 150 years, might reveal itself to be as nuanced and confusing a topic. If we reverse the terms and ask what art can tell us about crime, rather than what crime can tell us about art, we may find that crime is as broad and malleable an idea as art. While crime's definition might seem static, it necessarily evolves alongside our culture's changing ideas of right and wrong. Violating rules, of course, exists beyond just legal definitions. It has been at the center of avant-garde strategies for a century. Looking at the ways that art has participated in crime, and how crime has generated art, gives us a better understanding of both. From anonymous police documents of murder scenes to Mel Chin's efforts to raise funds to remove chemicals from the environment that have been linked to criminal behavior and mental illness, from Frank Bender's sculptural portraits of unidentified crime victims to appropriation art that verges on the counterfeit, the ways that art has described, participated in, and fought crime can help us find the outer limits of what we understand crime and the criminal to be.
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We propose an exhibition that scratches the surface of these broad ideas. We see this exhibition as the first of a series inaugurated at Blum&Poe and continued at other venues as possible. For the first exhibition we propose a broad range covering an array of possibilities of how art can describe and participate in crime.
The exhibition will be loosely defined by two conceptual axes. The first axis locates the works in the exhibition between the poles of describing crime and participating in crime. The second axis locates the works between the poles of the fictional and the non-fictional. By this system a police crime scene photograph would be at the far ends of the spectrum of both the non-fictional and the descriptive, whereas Nayland Blake's torture devices would exist at the opposite end--participation in an imaginary crime. Any number of works might fall within those limits and it would be our intention to create a broad spectrum of the possibilities of how the criminal may be understood through art.
Future exhibitions would take certain aspects of the broad subject of the show and examine them in depth. For example, a show of crime scene photography could include artists who have created fake crime scenes (from Duchamp's Étant Donnés to Les Krims' Stack O' Wheats) to Weegee to anonymous historical documents which exist, strictly speaking outside the purview of the artworld, but function in their form as artworks.
Our hope is that the show can open up a conception of what the criminal is as well as articulate a range of human experience that are produced by the transgressions defined within the show.