When Claes Oldenburg opened his downtown New York Store in 1961, his papier mâché sculptures of grocery items critiqued the way context creates value in the art world. Sarah Lucas and Tracy Emin’s 1993 Shop on London’s Brick Lane allowed the artists to produce and sell their work outside of the gallery system, as if from a tourist’s souvenir stand. For ‘Market Economy’, kurimanzutto’s first exhibition in 1999, the then-itinerant gallery installed works by 13 artists for 24 hours in a rented Mexico City market stall. Such projects were playful repudiations of art-world pageantry, which can sometimes mask the basic commodity status of artworks; but they also revealed a desire to make art more accessible by treating it no differently than corner-shop wares.
Much has changed since 1999, but the market is as complex as ever. Eighteen years later, Gabriel Orozco has reversed the idea for ‘Market Economy’, painstakingly constructing a working branch of OXXO – Mexico’s largest convenience-store chain – inside kurimanzutto’s permanent gallery. The fully stocked shop, spangled in OXXO’s signature red and white, is replete with over 3,000 products – from snack foods to nappies, cleaning supplies to alcohol and cigarettes. Red metal picnic tables and umbrellas sit in the gallery’s courtyard. Real OXXO employees (in collared company uniforms) staff the till, where they accept symbolic currency – paper bills designed by Orozco – in exchange for the store’s products. (The gallery was unable to obtain a distribution license, and so developed this workaround, in collaboration with OXXO’s parent company, the beverage conglomerate Fomento Económico Mexicano, or FEMSA.) Three hundred of these products have been decorated with Orozco’s signature semi-circular red, blue and gold motifs – positioned to mimic the possible movements of a chess set’s knight – and will be sold as editions, with prices tiered to halve with each edition sold. The complicated sale terms, which Orozco developed as a kind of collector’s game, are more reminiscent of package deals advertised on clipped coupons than the gallery’s typical transactions. The artist’s designs are akin to his branding, and sometimes camouflage with the labels of Jumex juice bottles or Tecate cans.
OROXXO has a puckish humour characteristic of Orozco’s works from the 1990s: ambitious, architecturally scaled sculptures and installations that warp or explode mundane objects until they overpower one’s field of vision. The thousands of colourfully decorated objects on OROXXO’s shelves are no different, overwhelming in their totality. One could be forgiven for mistaking the work for its referent; if kurimanzutto knocked down their front wall, OROXXO might attract a very different kind of clientele. It seems the old-school Orozco – comic bad boy, formalist auteur – has returned.
On a subtler level, the exhibition is an ingenious exercise in branding. FEMSA is a major collector of Orozco and a lender to public institutions. Some of the show’s most enticing interventions – semicircular patterns adorning colour-matched bottles of Bohemia beer, for instance – beautifully market FEMSA products, while possibly increasing the value of their collection. This is the ideology of the marketplace at work.
Oldenburg’s Store, the Emin/Lucas Shop and ‘Market Economy’ all drew blunt comparisons between the art market and the public agora, commercial galleries and grocery stores; but they did so by making the processes of art production and sale accessible to a broader swath of the public, from waylaid shoppers to workers on adjacent stalls. kurimanzutto has come a long way since 1999, and Orozco’s reversal of that original gesture fails to read the same way. Are the same people who stumbled across ‘Market Economy’ likely to knock at the gallery’s guarded gate? That which was punk is now blue chip, making Orozco’s meticulous construction of a mass-market vernacular seem more like an appropriation that ignores its class context. OROXXO is
a convenience, but for whom?
Main image: Gabriel Orozco, OrOXXO, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City; photograph: Estudio Michel Zabé