ASU Art Museum's "Open For Business" Shines a Light on Creative Consumerism, But the Show's Complexities May Work Against It

It all began back in 1996, when Jeffrey Deitch of New York's Deitch Gallery mounted an exhibition called "Shopping." Never without his trademark pair of large, round eyeglasses, Deitch — who, by the way, recently became the director of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art — hooked up 26 international artists with 26 SoHo businesses that, at the time, were quickly replacing funky art galleries, per the inevitable course of gentrification. The upshot was a veritable explosion of all forms of art about consumerism, consumption, and ownership displayed in trendy shop windows, boutiques, and restaurants, not to mention a hardware store, a Salvation Army outlet and a porn video store.

It was "Shopping" that inspired ASU Art Museum curator John Spiak's "Open for Business," an exhibition that runs through January 29 at the museum. According to New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, most of the work in Deitch's "Shopping" was "amusing or insightful," though even its most critical work didn't "have much staying power."

Pretty much the same can be said for "Open for Business," Spiak's less successful, latter-day version of mating creatives with commerce.

Peter Bugg and Ryan Peter Miller
collaborated with ASU Art Museum Store
on "Target Audience"
Kathleen Vanesian
Peter Bugg and Ryan Peter Miller collaborated with ASU Art Museum Store on "Target Audience"
Saskia Jordá's topographical shoes
(foreground) in "Bound," "Exchange"
(left) by Marco Rosichelli with Buffalo
Exchange, and more from "Target
Audience" (right)
Kathleen Vanesian
Saskia Jordá's topographical shoes (foreground) in "Bound," "Exchange" (left) by Marco Rosichelli with Buffalo Exchange, and more from "Target Audience" (right)


"Open for Business" runs through January 29 at ASU Art Museum, 10th Street and Mill Avenue in Tempe. Call 480-965-2787.
See: "Open For Business" in photos>.

Until now, Spiak didn't feel the time was ripe to mount this type of show. But the economic nosedive of recent years spurred him to pair artists with Mill Avenue businesses in Tempe weathering the recessionary storm that has sunk so many others.

Unlike Deitch, Spiak hasn't included empty storefronts in his project, though they were offered to him. "[I thought,] why don't we do stuff in businesses that are still surviving this economy?" says Spiak. He's left empty storefronts to Scottsdale Public Art's "Creative Connect/IN FLUX," with whom ASUAM has partnered to produce a printed location guide for both projects. Unfortunately, the guide fails to describe or explain the projects involved, which will leave a lot of viewers scratching their heads.

"The idea of this project," Spiak says, "is to connect humans to humans, not landlords to artists, who let them have the space, and then when that space leases, they get kicked out. This is a mutual agreement, a mutual collaboration and something that, hopefully, is mutually beneficial for this project and beyond."

To that end, Spiak invited 16 artists to cruise Mill Avenue with him and venture into shops that struck their fancies. Spiak says the only rule placed on the artists was that if one of them wanted to go into a business, all 16 had to go in, too, in order to foster a running dialogue. Artists then submitted proposals and Spiak contacted the artist-chosen businesses to sign them on to the project. Like any ongoing undertaking, there were glitches, including businesses going under before the exhibition opening or frequent changes in management that prevented a final hook-up.

The results of all this effort are on display in both ASUAM and in the businesses that are participating. More than just symbolic spit-swapping between art and retail business, some artists in "Open for Business" have done serious homework after letting their imaginations run amok — and it shows.

A number of pieces in the show are fairly complex and appear as if they'll survive long past their obvious origins. However, their very complexity could work against them, as far as the general public is concerned.

Case in point is Erin V. Sotak's intriguing Stowage from the Eternal Optimist, produced for Julian Wright's La Bocca Urban Pizzeria & Wine Bar. Sotak, who is interested in creating her own mythologies, has stuffed an 18th-century Chippendale repro cabinet with fresh lemons, which are displayed as though they were exotic objets d'art or some coveted treasure in a cabinet of curiosities owned by a wealthy Age of Enlightenment collector. Her lemons bring to mind the old mantra of optimistically making lemonade out of lemons, as well as their critical importance to 18th-century sailors in treating and preventing scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency — the biggest killer of sailors from the 1500s to early 1800s. In a cyclic fashion, sailors relate to "optimist dinghies," those tiny boats used to train children to sail. At La Bocca, there is a video installation with images that refer to Sotak's lemon mythology. In addition, if you order lemonade at La Bocca, it will be served in a glass with an image, designed by Sotak, on it depicting a dinghy going over a waterfall along with the word "optimist." But how many viewers are going to get even a fraction of Sotak's historical references?

Mary Lucking's whimsy-filled installation, titled Finnegan's Craic ("craic" is Gaelic for joke or fun), was inspired by Rúla Búla, an Irish pub on Mill. Irish pubs evoke Irish author James Joyce, whose incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness novel Finnegans Wake is considered one of the most difficult pieces of literature written in English. (Don't believe anyone who says they actually understand what's going on in this book.) Knowing that most people can't get through Finnegans Wake (which has more than one whiskey-soaked, Dublin pub scene in it), much less understand it, Lucking made a series of 64 coasters that ask patrons to imagine Joyce scribbling notes for his epic on her coasters. Each week, she doodles, sketches, or writes a key quote from the novel on the back of one of the coasters, one of which is displayed in the museum each week, with the rest being passed out at the bar — with all 64, you get a kind of abridged, CliffsNotes version of the book.

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Dave Adus
Dave Adus

It's always annoying to read "art criticism" in which the ego of the "critic" is the main subject. Give me nuanced, researched, and insightful comments about the art, context, and artists or just give me the facts.

Gillian Trevejo
Gillian Trevejo

Your review is podunk. Get your head out of your "First Friday" arse and learn to write a review that doesn't sound like a blog from my 13-year-old sister.

J Miller
J Miller

Seriously, Gillian: "arse"? Do you also speak with a proper British Madonna? Can your 13-year old sister write an unpretentious sentence, so we can all learn from her insightful writing? Please post a link to her blog.