2.6 / Review

Shadowshop

By Patricia Maloney November 28, 2010

In February 2009, art critic Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times about the potential opportunities artists could find in the rubble of the economic collapse, as galleries shuttered their doors and sales of artworks dried up. He suggests that:

if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction.1

While somewhat romanticizing the struggle now facing artists who had become accustomed to viable or skyrocketing careers during the boom years of the last decade, Cotter cites historical precedents to prop up the idea that artists can reclaim control over the aesthetic, political, and socio-economical valuation of their production.

Zachary Royer Scholz. 6610 (blue sheeting) – force of habit, 2010; blue packing material; edition of 10. Courtesy of Shadowshop, San Francisco.

Artist Stephanie Syjuco offers such a reclamation project in the form of her installation, Shadowshop (2010-11), on view as part of The More Things Change, a collection exhibition at SFMOMA of work from the past ten years. Positioned purposefully at the far end of the exhibition en route to the rooftop sculpture garden and café, Shadowshop is a pop-up store that sells objects and wares produced by over two hundred Bay Area artists. It capitalizes on the familiar scenario of a temporary, special-exhibition gift shop and the ready availability of potential customers. It also embeds political and conceptual implications in each transaction and in the structures by which the installation-cum-merchantile operates. The paid sales clerks earn more than San Francisco living wage rates. The artists receive all of the pre-tax proceeds for the sale of their products, none of which cost over $250. Syjuco does not impose commissions or consignment fees, and as this is an installation, the museum’s budget covers the operational costs.

Syjuco proposes Shadowshop as an alternative model by which artists might take control of, or at least explore, the mechanisms surrounding the “production, consumption, and dissemination of their work.”2 Syjuco selected artists, not products, as the basis for stocking her shelves. Her intention is to foreground their position as practicing artists, rather than as manufacturers. The artists in turn choose the goods to sell, their quantity, and their prices. In this sense, the shop circumvents the prevailing system by which galleries are the primary arbitrators and means of access to works of art available for sale.

However, with the exception of commissioned pieces, Syjuco did not want the participating artists to make art; she asked them to consider other means of creative output that would fit within a commercial context. While many of the artists produced t-shirts, tote bags, witty tchotchkes, and posters, not all of them adhered to the dictum to offer non-art. The artworks placed amongst goods stood out, and not necessarily in the artist’s favor. For example, Zachary Royer Scholz’s conceptually driven circles cut freehand from packing material look like imperfect, overpriced coasters in this context. Any evidence of the obsession and care expended in the attempt to produce a perfect geometric form is lost.

Stephanie Syjuco. Shadowshop, 2010-11; installation view, SFMOMA. Courtesy of the Artist and SFMOMA.

This failure highlights one of the major contradictions inherent in the model. The fact that Shadowshop is succeeding as a marketplace may actually undermine the challenge the project poses to SFMOMA—and its visitors—to recognize the included artists as artists.3 Instead, sales position them as successful vendors. In any system of exchange, whether for sale or barter, market value requires an individual to accept the proposed cost for receipt of goods. The purchaser validates the value of the object instead of validating its producer. In other words, while the money artists earn from sales might enable them to pay rent or spend time in the studio, the artists gain little if any visibility in this context for the conceptual, aesthetic, or critical concerns that signify them as artists.

Syjuco perceives this contradiction as essential to the project. She is prioritizing the participating artists’ economic needs and upending expectations about what artists should produce to gain financial stability and acknowledgment. She has created a context that juxtaposes providing a select but large group of artists with museum real estate against the prevailing, imbalanced, non-negotiable relationship most artists have with exhibiting institutions. And she has done so with remarkable generosity: Syjuco’s authorship of Shadowshop does not override the work of the individual artists-cum-vendors.

However, while offering an alternative marketplace and thereby an alternative means of monetary gain, Shadowshop nevertheless relies upon traditional means of production and consumption, and hovers on a fine line between usurping and reinforcing market value as the primary gauge for an artist’s success. While Syjuco encourages artists to be subversive by leveraging their power as producers, she also acknowledges that the project could suggest a hierarchy, in which local artists are present in the museum only by subverting the usual channels. In my conversation with her during one of the project’s opening days, I made the observation that despite the resemblance to a special-exhibition gift shop, none of the artists included in Shadowshop are on view as part of The More Things Change. The discrepancy reinforces the strict definitions that surround what constitutes a legitimate work of art, which have more to do with market than material conditions.

Libby Black and Kavamore Press. Own It Send It correspondence cards; packet of three different letterpress cards, envelopes, and stamped pencil. Courtesy of Shadowshop, San Francisco.

If Shadowshop could serve as a model for other ventures, it would necessarily need to take operational costs into consideration, as well as customer demand and relative market values, considerations to which artists as cultural producers are ostensibly untethered. It would also need to explicitly acknowledge how those considerations undermine the far less tangible conceptual value of a work. For example, Michael Arcega’s hand-calligraphed postcards of Facebook status updates fall within the same price point as Libby Black’s set of three letterpress notecards. Removing the critical framework surrounding their respective artistic practices, my deliberating factor became what kind and how much stationary I preferred for my $20. I bought the notecards.

It feels slightly treacherous for me to think about the work of artists in purely consumerist terms, but that is in many ways the point of Syjuco’s project. A significant divide exists between creative agency and economic viability for artists in the Bay Area, and Shadowshop doesn’t close that gap, despite the potential profit it yields for participants.  However, it succeeds where it most needs to, by highlighting how pervasively we ask artists to discount the value of their production, on both material and critical terms.

 

Shadowshop is on view at SFMOMA, in San Francisco, through May 1, 2011.

Notes

  1. Holland Cotter, "The Boom is Over. Long Live Art!," The New York Times, February 12, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/arts/design/15cott.html?_r=2&
  2. Artist’s website, accessed November 26, 2010, http://stephaniesyjuco.com/shadowshop/about.html
  3. Between November 19 and November 29, Shadowshop made $17,301.48 in direct sales of artists' works. This figure does not include California sales tax, which is charged. SFMOMA pays the sales tax directly to the State and additionally, is absorbing all associated credit card fees.

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