BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Joe Scanlan

BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 06 JUN 98

Michael Jordan claims he will only play basketball for his long-time friend and coach, Phil Jackson. Since Jackson won't be returning next season as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, number 23's career in the NBA is uncertain at best. On 8th March this year, Jordan celebrated his final visit to Madison Square Garden as the league's most valuable player by wearing a pair of vintage Nike Air Jordans (circa 1984). He scored 42 points and secured a Bull's victory, proving that the 14 year-old shoes still have what it takes.

Joe Scanlan's installation at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art is also an act of celebration, or commemoration. Returning to Chicago for his first US museum show, Scanlan used this opportunity to vent his frustrations with the altruistic guise of art production and its misguided mechanisms of distribution. Choosing not to use the museum as a showcase for his hand-made objects, he instead re-framed Mike Kelley's piece, Pay for Your Pleasure, a work he helped create as a curator at the Renaissance Society in Chicago in 1988.

49 banners digitally printed with quotes and images of humanity's most profound and famous personalities colourfully engulf the perimeter walls of the exhibition space. Jane Adams and Cher, Goethe and Hegel, Claude Monet and David Hammons, Artie Shaw and George Clinton are gathered together in a two-dimensional, town-hall-type forum, each professing an insight into the activities and issues of cultural democracy. From Oscar Wilde's quote 'Art should not try to be popular. The public should make itself more artistic' to Marcel Broodthaers' 'I, too, wonder if I couldn't sell something and succeed in life', these varied voices and psycho-graphic images ironically reassure viewers that their investment in art and entertainment is for their greater good.

Perched in the middle of these coyly grinning experts is a pair of size 11 Nike Air Jordans and the handwritten placard from the shop that sold them. The scrawled note reads, 'Here they are!! The First Air Jordan... Go Figure - Somebody Saved these Babies! Could be the only pair on EARTH!!' Protected in a vitrine, the red, black and white hightop court shoes and their sales pitch stand both enshrined and incriminated by an institution that desperately attempts to squeeze the same enthusiasm, attendance and cash from its patrons as its commercial competition: Nike Town.

The Air Jordans, as Scanlan suggests, 'threaten to become a great work of art' and he is probably correct. However, in this installation the shoes' iconic placement at the centre of art's social and economic position deflates their beauty of design, reducing them to the unseemly position of a dangling participle. As a result, Scanlan's frustration with art-world-ego and its negation of the real economy of products and goods is distilled into a gesture of appropriation that looks like a warmed-up piece of 80s deconstruction. This is unfortunate because Scanlan's observations are more urgent and alive than the static, deadpan package presented here.

But Scanlan's sagacity and passion are exquisitely served in a more pedestrian form: the inexpensive exhibition catalogue. This $6.95 paperback more efficiently underscores his ideological disgust with institutional cheerleading than his attempt at illustrative 'reprise'. Like his contributions to frieze and Art Issues, Scanlan's catalogue interview with exhibition organiser, Amanda Cruz, continues to focus a lens on the frayed seam that binds art to real life.

Perhaps the failure of the show is intentional, exemplifying the hypocrisy of the art institution by adapting an installation that gives the Museum of Contemporary Art exactly what it wants: a persuasive sermon on its own virtues. Yet Scanlan's legitimate gripe with the whole pedantic posture of the art world is better served outside the museum. His research and drive to flag new models of activity, his championing of designers, fabricators, technicians and consumers over artists and their institutional representatives via his writing has opened new windows to cognitive dissonance in art production. But when it comes to making work, Scanlan should return to an economy that he can regulate, trusting his own instincts as a savvy, thoughtful consumer. It's time for Scanlan to lace up those Air Jordans and return to the workshop.

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is Director of the exhibition spaces The Suburban in Milwaukee, USA and the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, USA.