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Ready Mades at Urban Outfitters

On view indefinitely

It seems an artwork is an object made for the purpose of being nonfunctional. We can no longer get away with saying “for the purpose of being beautiful,” as would have been unblushingly averred a mere hundred-some years ago. Most art does purport to give us an experience of something either more simple or more complex than everyday life, or to reflect back to us what we do experience, encapsulated or transcribed. The term “decorative” is, on the other hand, hurled at art that does not seem to have any ideas or notions of how to see. Mass-produced canvases for sale at Urban Outfitters, though of course decorative, offer a pointed commentary about the way art is produced and thought about and the consumer’s relationship to it.

Why is a shiny canvas of a road sign that says “BUMP” against some foliage satisfying? The piece descends from '70s photorealism, with its projection of signs and shop windows to the front of the picture plane as a way of both being representation and representing representation, as if saying, “Hi. I’m a picture.” If “cool” is the absence of, or the appearance of the absence of thought and emotion, then photorealism is the apotheosis of an idea with no there there, a likeable but shallow statement that easily devolves into a joke. Just the conceit of being an art object differentiated from everything else, even if there are thousands of identical ones for $39.99, seems to make the joke more profound than if the same image was printed on a poster. This is something that anyone born at the end of the twentieth century can understand.

The artist as interlocutor is eliminated, as well as the interference of the gallery and the price, all of which normally set a value for the work. Any intention is also obviated, other than the intention to sell. The conceptual products that Urban Outfitters offers, for example, the talking Nacho Libre key chains and Jesus rubber ducks, are perpetually on sale. The printed-paint canvases are purely graphic, designed to make their way to as many dorm room walls as they can.

So how do they make their claim to being art and not posters? In two ways: 1. they are on stretchers; 2. they are printed on fabric, not paper. Some works are actually quilted together, the fabric analog of collage. There is something attractive about blocks of calico sewn together and embroidered with an electrical tower, a horse, and the horse’s shadow or twin, but I’m not sure why. It verges on an idea, perhaps; the digestion of the physical reality of our world into something honest and handmade, like a Hmong tapestry using threads in unnatural fluorescent colors. Yet when we think of the labor that went into the forty-dollar Urban Outfitters item, and the rate at which its maker was likely reimbursed, it becomes an object of horror. Artworks which comment on this relationship don’t come anywhere near the visceral pain this object evokes: the lust and guilt of consumerism.

Another weirdly attractive piece is a design of the British flag in pale blue with the crosswise stripes in floral. The conflation of several trends is fascinatingly confusing: British flags are cool; hippie is cool; art is cool. What the hell is a hippie British flag as art? Another piece mimics quilting in an offhand way, with a lime green tree printed in one pattern, some shrubs in another, and some other vague shapes in a third. Quilting; trees; and British flags. An owl comes to seem more current than a swallow. Apples and pears are, like, so two years ago. Emblems of fashion are tossed into the air until they can’t be kept aloft any more; then they go on sale. It seems there’s some art in fashion, and a lot of fashion in art.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2007

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