Visiting Artist Profiles

Lane Relyea

By Lia Wilson August 2, 2012

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.

 Lane Relyea is the keynote speaker for the San Francisco Art Institute's 26th Annual Art Criticism Conference. Relyea will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 16.

Lane Relyea.

To consider myself an art critic is to wrestle with the limitations and insularity of the field. Contemporary art can appear to many as an opaque, highly specialized club. Access to the club often seems dependent on some combination of specific degrees, nepotistic connections, and hours committed to the interpretation of dense theoretical texts in search of insider understanding. To write within this arena is to face a reality that the only people reading my work are oftentimes those who saw the same shows, share similar educational backgrounds, stack their bookcases with the same authors, and will pick up the references I am putting down. Sure, there are populist authors who have attempted to make art writing more accessible, seeking to discuss visual culture without using the initiated vocabulary, complex citations, or the critical bob and weave that forces so many of us to squint over the same three sentences until some clarity arises. There will always be a place for a more general kind of art writing, and its inclusive efforts are important. The fact remains, however, that some of us crave a certain level of intellectual rigor and dialogue in spite of the perceived barriers it may put up to the unversed.

Recently, while reading the work of critic Lane Relyea, I was reminded that there is ample middle ground between these two poles. Including any reader is about showing how art is connected and embedded in everything else. Visual analysis at its best is a political, social, and cultural analysis, and an essential part of knowing and questioning our world. This is something to which all inquiring minds have access.

Relyea has witnessed some major changes in the contemporary art scene through the past few decades and has taken part as a critic, curator, author, and educator. He has published in Afterall, Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art, Frieze, Modern Painters, and Parkett. He served as editor of Artpaper from 1987 to 1991 and is currently editor of Art Journal. He has taught at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and currently teaches at Northwestern University as chair of the Art Theory and Practice program.

One of the major muscles in Relyea's writing is reminding readers that changes in the art world mirror and play an integral part in changes in greater society. As much as we may forget, contemporary art doesn't exist in a bubble. We do art objects, artists, institutions, curators, galleries, and museums a great disservice if we examine their details in isolation. Like all other sectors of business, the art world has undergone significant changes with the advent of globalization in the late twentieth century. Beneath every individual art object is an intricate network of distribution, circulation, finance, advertising, and manpower. This world exists today as more of a horizontal matrix of cities rather than a single dominant hub. Through an awareness of this increasingly dispersed system, Relyea draws parallels with how art objects and practices themselves are becoming increasingly networked; he highlights the aim of many current art objects and discourses to link various platforms and databases of visibility, favoring the potency of this system of organized connections over the objects themselves. In his 2010 article "On Distribution Systems," Relyea states,

Just as no single TV show or pop song is as hot today as the TiVo boxes and iPods that manage their organization, so too with art it's the ease and agility of access and navigation through and across data fields and sites and projects that takes precedence over any singular, lone object. The sovereign, self-centered, self-anchored object or artist subject or art site or show or art center is no longer what exudes aura; rather it's the ability to shuttle along the pathways, to partake of the network's scaffolding of spokes and nodes, that incites real competition.1

Symptomatic of a myriad other decentralized types of industry, the agility with which art moves through these elaborate networks of visual communication and all its outreaching limbs is what enables its success. Highlighting this destabilization of the modernist notion of the autonomous artist or art object is another major effort in Relyea's practice, and one that helps to break down the perception of contemporary art as insular and inconsequential. Providing perspective like this is Relyea's gift. Nothing exists in a vacuum and art hasn't worked that way for some time—writing about it, talking about it, and tracking the complex relationships between art practices and societal history not only underlines the embedded nature of visual culture, but also enables space for the art to talk back to anyone willing to listen.


The Visiting Artist Profile series is supported by the San Francisco branch of the Kadist Art Foundation. Kadist participates in the development of society through contemporary art by collecting and producing the work of artists and conducting various programs to promote their role as cultural agents. The foundation also supports the work of curators, academics, and magazines internationally through its residency program and by hosting public events on Wednesdays and a Saturday Reading Room at its space at 3295 20th Street in the Mission.



  1. Lane Relyea, "Lane Relyea on Distribution Systems," Chicago Art Magazine, November 23, 2010. Originally appeared in Chicago Art Criticism on January 27, 2010.

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