It’s such a shame when bad exhibitions happen in great museums.
I have a fondness for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. If you aren’t familiar, the MOCAD is a 22,000 square foot space that was built, or rather assembled, in the early 2000’s within the walls of an old car dealership—a poetic placement for a museum concerned with contemporary issues in art, and an institutional advocate for its patrons, in Detroit. The space that was designed by famed Detroit industrial architect Albert Kahn at the turn the century has been reimagined by another Detroit architect, Andrew Zago. The relatively small space is a beacon to the creative revitalization in Detroit—hybridizing the old and the new.
99 Cents or Less held so much potential. “99” artists (I put ’99’ in quotes because there were actually 103 artists, the guidelines set for the show weren’t followed even by its curator) who were invited to produce new works for display in the museum referencing Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, industrially produced consumer items that are manipulated via an intervention by the artist and Arte Povera’s use of often cheap and mundane materials to critique convention and the market. For me, the show could have and, frankly, should have utilized the framework of the ‘readymade’ as a way to form a discussion on race and poverty in America. Since Dollar Tree Inc., Dollar General Corp., and 99 Cents Only Stores LLC have a tendency to pop up in ethnic, low-income neighborhoods. This exhibition could have been about consumer goods’ usage and/or abuse or retail power in America. This could have been, and seems to have intended to address “Detroit’s ongoing economic crisis and its 2013 bankruptcy–the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in the history of the United States. Four years after a federal judge approved Detroit’s bankruptcy-exit plan the city’s financial present and future are still in flux”, according to the exhibition statement— but it wasn’t.
Jens Hoffman, the MOCAD’s Adjunct Curator, concurrently works as director of exhibitions and public programs at the Jewish Museum, New York. Hoffman’s resume is pretty long, filled with positions as the director of the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, and as curator or co-curator of numerous biennials, including in Shanghai (2012), Istanbul (2011), and Berlin (1998). Hoffman doesn’t live in Detroit, and he doesn’t even function as curator for MOCAD full time, and it shows in 99 Cents. The exhibition just felt like it was filled with stuff— it wasn’t thoughtful, it certainly wasn’t well curated. It was difficult to navigate as a viewer because it was neither breathable and concise, nor intentionally full and claustrophobic—an approach that could have been interesting and much, much more engaging. The biggest success was the exhibition design which was the entire wall utilized to have the exhibition title and statement, designed to replicate retail marketing (in reference to color, formatting, and font) that is easily recognizable for the middle class / lower middle class consumer.
99 Cents invited both local artists, Shaina Kasztelan and Virginia Overton to name a couple, as well as established artists— Amy Sillman, John Baldessari, Laurie Simmons, and Matt Mullican, for example. It seemed as if the works fell into two camps: One consists of the artists who typically already work within the Arte Povera camp and/or utilize color palettes that are intentionally garish in similar ways—which were interesting works and for the most part successful. The second camp consists of artists like Amy Sillman, who don’t typically work with these kitschy materials, and seem to recognize the underlying problem in a curator ignoring artists that do, and instead opting to ask artists of notoriety to participate. Sillman’s ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME (2017) is pretty apparent in its critique of the exhibition and of Hoffman, especially if you are familiar with Sillman’s depiction and critique of the art world and its inhabitants. Laurie Simmons’ pigment print Pink and Blue Mess (Female/Male) (2017) is beautiful and indicative of her excellent understanding of complex compositions and color psychology— but it almost gets lost as it is at least 7 ft by 4ft and was shoved in a corner.
Virginia Overton’s installation Untitled (Piggy Bank Change) (2017), was a wonderful application of resources and exhibition of ambivalence towards an attempt at ironic playing with institutions that actually help low-income consumers while simultaneously taking advantage of them. Overton was given their $99.00 and went and purchased several brightly colored piggy banks and then donated the rest of her stipend to several non profits and charities. She installed introductory tags to explain each organization and requested museum-goers to donate to any of the various programs, which would then be dispersed at the end of the exhibition.
I left with two main questions: why didn’t Hoffman just ask local artists, who are ALREADY making work in this vein, to create work for this exhibition? And why did he choose to exhibit 103 artists, which had to be a terrible undertaking especially from a distance, rather than keep the exhibit small so that the works could actually communicate and be what they need to be. MOCAD and Detroit residents deserve a Museum of Contemporary Art that can at the very least provide someone full time to design their exhibitions.