Shotgun Review

Sell Your Debt

By Natasha Boas February 10, 2013

Pierre Cabanne: Your best work has been your use of your time.
Marcel Duchamp: That’s right.

It may come as no surprise to those who have followed Claire Fontaine’s career since 2004 to find one of her most effective exhibitions to date on display at Queen's Nails on Mission Street in San Francisco—and it is best viewed from the street. The artist-run space, co-directed and co-curated by Julio Cesar Morales and Bob Linder, seeks to unsettle the staid state of exhibition making by offering an ambitious roster of artists, exhibitions, music, and performances. Directly and indirectly, Queen's Nails has already aligned itself with Claire Fontaine’s desire to upset conventional positions of the artist, spectator, and institutions with the intent to eschew self-promotion and disrupt viewer expectations.

Claire Fontaine, the self-described “Paris-based collective artist” whose “assistants” are Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill, derives her name from the popular brand of
French scholastic notebooks (of blank pages, ready to be
filled). It is a direct conceptual allusion to Duchamp’s iconic readymade, the urinal titled Fountain (1917). If readymades
are always “things plus text,” we can see Claire Fontaine’s practice as playing on exactly that: she shares intellectual and private property in an effort to dismantle the concept of
artistic genius.2 It is a kind of subjective emancipation, one
that surprises the viewer by creating something that looks familiar but with a subversive twist. Claire Fontaine grew up influenced by the ’70s Italian radical left, among the ruins of the notion of authorship and the experimentation with collective production. Her emphasis on the readymade is


Claire Fontaine. America (Burnt/Unburnt), 2012; matches and fire; 13 x 9 feet. Courtesy of the Artist and Queen's Nails, San Francisco.

also reflexive: she calls herself a “readymade artist,” referring to the “difficulty in believing that what you do is unique, and that your inspiration and your art belong in a magical and sacred space.”

The exhibition at Queen's Nails, Sell Your Debt, is composed of two statement pieces: a neon piece in the gallery window spelling the three words of the exhibition title and a burned map of the United States made from an indeterminate number of matches—rumors have the number ranging from twenty-five thousand to ninety thousand—that were embedded in the gallery wall and ignited to create an ashen, apocalyptic stencil. Just as Claire Fontaine insists that her “collective notion of meaning expands to include everyone who sees the work and subsequently thinks about the work,” one can’t help believing in something fundamentally luminous and transgressive while standing on Mission Street, looking in. Sell Your Debt is art for the streets that forces you to think.


Sell Your Debt is on view at Queen's Nails, in San Francisco, through February 23, 2013.


Natasha Boas, PhD is a San Francisco–based independent curator, writer, and professor of contemporary art. She has been curating internationally for over twenty years and has contributed to numerous publications and catalogues. She has taught at California College of the Arts, San Francisco Art Institute, Stanford University, and Yale University, and her most recent exhibitions include We They, We They: Clare RojasOnly Birds Sing the Music of this World with Harrell Fletcher, and E is for Everyone: Celebrating Sister Corita. Boas’ essay “Was There Ever Really a Mission School: A Partial and Incomplete Oral History” is published in the current University of California Berkeley Art Museum Barry McGee retrospective catalogue. She is a regular contributor to The Believer.


1. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Da Capo, 1971; reprinted 1987).

2. All quotes are from Claire Fontaine’s conversation with the art critic and historian Hal Foster on October 30, 2012, at the California College of the Arts, in San Francisco.

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