It’s a query that artist and adjunct faculty member Jon Haddock poses to his students at Phoenix College and a topic that, he believes, we too often take for granted. Haddock had this theme in mind when he curated local artist Karolina Sussland's "Big A, little a," the first of three shows that he will organize at Phoenix College's Eric Fischl Gallery in a series that will attempt to answer this question. (The series will continue with work by Mary Lucking in February 2016, followed by Nancy and Dale Reinker in March.)
The show's title is a reference to the idiom “Art with a capital A," which appeared in E.H. Gombrich's 1950 art history primer The Story of Art. Gombrich writes, "There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists." He calls "Art with a capital A" a "bogey" and a "fetish," arguing that art means different things to different people throughout history.
Today, fine art is expected to be rich in concept, meaning, and originality. “It has a lot to do with intent,” Sussland says in an e-mail interview with New Times. “It's about why value is placed on it instead of who places the value.” Sussland believes that fine art must be made within a particular context and contribute to an ongoing dialogue within art history. Commercial art, on the other hand, is intended for mass sale and distribution and therefore subject to a client's whims. And it is, generally, abhorred by the fine art world.
In today’s market, it's hard to make it as a fine artist. “It's like a video game, but much more tricky,” Sussland says. “The rules are implied and there's no clarity, no way to just look up anything. You keep trying to collect tokens until you win or die.” Most importantly, she adds, “You're supposed to do it all without stepping into the commercial realm.”
Fine art can be beautiful, but commercial art must be beautiful. It is difficult to define, but – like the phrase used by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 to describe the threshold test for obscenity – you know it when you see it. Inoffensive and visually pleasing, commercial art often leans towards the abstract. You stare at it from the dentist chair as you suffer through a root canal. It adorns the walls of hotel rooms and the lobbies of banks. And it often decorates our homes. According to Sussland, it “replaces the posters that you had in your dorm room because posters are no longer appropriate after a certain age.” But the definitions are clearly fuzzy. As Haddock suggests via e-mail, “If the difference […] is intent – that a commercial artist intends to make a living, and that a fine artist intends to answer a question, then the commodification of art production is closer to what many people think of when they hear the term 'conceptual.'”
Sussland has a personal connection to the commercialized American dream. “It’s what brought me here,” she says. “My family escaped from the Czech Republic during the height of the Cold War. My aunt, who got out before the borders closed and lived in Tempe, would send my parents Arizona Highways magazines." The magazine’s supersaturated sunset photos drew Sussland's family to the United States. "To me, that’s the commercialized American dream," she explains. "That perfect sunset version of reality that doesn’t really exist.”
In the exhibition, Sussland contrasts work that she created to sell with work she made to further a conversation. Her Sunset Series employs the utopian images from the 1970s-era Arizona Highways magazines that brought her family to Arizona. Sussland transforms the original photos into opalescent canvases decorated with delicate golden tree branches.
“White is the color of purity in our culture," she says. "Interference gold is the most commercial color. It’s just super sexy.” The colors effuse a façade of perfection. Sussland considers the Sunset Series fine art, but it was also sold commercially. “It works really well with the concept of the series, since it’s about the commercialized American dream. So it made sense to sell them commercially,” she insists. “Or maybe it just gave me permission to do that.” This aside makes it clear that even Sussland feels the stigma against fine artists “selling out.”
Another series mirrors the absurdity of stereotypical stock photography. Sussland poses while chopping vegetables in the kitchen and eating lettuce. (The meme “Women Laughing Alone with Salad” comes to mind.) In a separate group of work, Sussland appropriates others’ “perfect” photos of the landscape and removes the sky, replacing it with a sunset in graphite. As one moves through the space, the works begin with the most commercial and end with the least commercial, with one notable exception – a dozen oil-on-panel portraits of sex offenders from Garland, Texas, are dispersed throughout the room. The figures stare blankly forward, as if they are hanging out at the show. “[Their placement] shows how the commercial and fine art work overlap and also diverge,” Sussland says.”It also presents the possibility of doing both.”
Is there, then, a true difference between fine and commercial art? “Karolina is rarely qualified to address this question, because she makes a conscious division in her own practice,” Haddock says. “Many artists make art as true as they can and hope it will sell; others design work effectively and are happy if some soul rubs off on it. Because she does both – because she is committed both – she knows the difference, can talk about it clearly, and provide relevant examples.”
The line between capital-A "Art" and lower-case "art" is blurry, and probably always will be. Yet even Sussland concedes, “There’s a lot to be said about bringing someone joy through beauty.”
"Karolina Sussland: Big A, little a” continues through Tuesday, October 27. The Eric Fischl Gallery is located on the second floor of the Fine and Performing Arts Building at Phoenix College. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information, call 602-285-7277 or visit: http://www.phoenixcollege.edu/campus-life/eric-fischl-gallery