Sands Murray-Wassink: In Good Company
On Viewmistral, Amsterdam
In Good Company (Horsepower): Material from the Gift Science Archive, 1993–present
March 6 – May 23, 2021
In 1994, the then 20-year-old Sands Murray-Wassink left Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, where he studied under Carolee Schneemann, for an exchange semester in Amsterdam. He continued his studies at one of the city’s lavish studio programs and never returned to New York. Listening to My First Phone Conversation With My Boyfriend (1996), I learn it was in this period that the Stedelijk Museum acquired his work and he met his partner Robin Wassink-Murray, with whom he has spent his life since.
Over the years Sands has produced an exhaustive amount of paintings, videos, performances, and texts, at once completely and unabashedly about him and at the same time about much more than himself—his loved ones, his fellow artists, the artworld, the role of artists, and patriarchal society at large. Apart from the early instance, he has done so without receiving much institutional support. Always committed to fellow feminist artists, he became a sort of queer cult figure of the Amsterdam art scene, appreciated by the city’s artistic community for his touching performances and, in my case, for his approach to artmaking that is at once conceptual and deeply emotional. Now, the artist is in the middle of an 18-month performance, in which he collaborates with a team of curators to archive his highly personal oeuvre. Before making an appearance at East London’s Auto Italia, the latest chapter in this performance takes the form of an exhibition in Amsterdam.
Covering the corner of the room is Signature Collage from 1993–95, a constellation of notes, studio floor plans, photocopies of textbook pages depicting canonical works by Hannah Wilke and Schneemann, and photographs of his native Kansas landscape. The material is repeatedly marked “Sands Murray” with thick crayon, perhaps an attempt by the young artist to inscribe himself into an art historical lineage? Or just a way to express how connected he feels to these artists. When Sands speaks about his work, he usually ends up speaking about the work of other artists. In particular Wilke, Schneemann, and Adrian Piper—the latter two intimately holding Sands in photographs across the room—whom he calls his guiding lights.
One reason Sands has received limited recognition as an artist could be that what he proposes with his work resists the way we attempt to deal with art. Instead of the isolated selection collectors or museums usually make—“the best” of the artist, “the best” of a series—Sands proposes to show everything. In an interview with one of the curators he explains he has always felt frustrated with the extensive editing that goes on in art. To counterbalance this Sands came up with an alternative, which he calls Survival Acceptance Art and with which he proposes we consider everything we do, as this makes up who we are as a person and thus also as an artist. A good example of this approach is the Big Pumpkin Series (2009): an installation of what looks like unedited photographs of Sands posing naked in a blossoming garden. Rather than a selection the series includes all of the photos that his partner took of him on a joyful summer day.
In Good Company
As we emerge from this moment of precarity and isolation and reconsider our ways of living and our ways of being with art, examining Murray-Wassink’s work feels timely as it puts emphasis on the influences, friendships and other relationships that inform an artist’s work, valuing process and messiness, feelings, emotions, and even the self-doubt and insecurities inherent to artistic practice and life. This relational dimension of the work is honored through the way visitors to the exhibition are invited to take up the role of researcher and enter into dialogue with the curators who are present. I believe it is in these conversations where the work really happens, especially considering what the artist proposes with his work—often literally as statements painted on paper—takes precedence over its visual quality. It is “food for discussion” and by turning the archiving process into an interactive presentation we are finally given the chance to discuss.
The drama and desperation of paintings announcing “How it (life) feels” or declaring “Not good enough” is balanced with an equal amount of humor and wit: “Making bad work is still making work.” Intertwining desperation with humor, and uncomplicated conceptuality with deep feeling, like in Coordinates, Pre-Robin (1995), a piece including all of the artist’s residential addresses up to the point of meeting Robin Wassink-Murray in 1996, Sands’s work proposes unconventional combinations and provides a touching insight into his process of artmaking. The exhibition reminds me not to think of an artwork as isolated, and not as merely part of an oeuvre, but rather as part of an artist’s life, something highly personal that may, but more often may not, reach the stage of being presented to a public. Perhaps the inherently open and generous approach of Sands Murray-Wassink’s acceptance art can be an encouragement to a new generation of artists, to whom the endearing artist could be a guiding light.