By the end of Max Schumann’s exhibition the white walls behind his paintings were peppered with the pockmarks of tiny pins. Each hole represented the location of a previously hung picture, and together they formed the history of the show – not one but five separate installations of works of varying size and number. In conceiving of the exhibition as a series of consecutive incarnations and instalments, Schumann was able to exhibit approximately 150 pieces – the rapid ‘now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t’ display appropriately echoed the fast and furious character of the work.
Acrylic paint on ordinary cardboard panels, Schumann’s quickly executed expressionistic scenes are assiduously copied from source material drawn from the public realm – adverts, newspapers, horror films – and suggest an obsessive interest in constructed realities, be they of the Washington DC, Hollywood or Madison Avenue variety. The subjects are ready-made and self-evident, from front-page headlines to prominent politicians to car ads shot in pretty landscapes, and are often overlaid with text. For instance, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘they might attack’ accompany stereotypical American pick-up truck advertisements – large 4x4s tackling a wild terrain – and the words inject a political agenda into the images by drawing a connection between the gas-guzzling, territory-grabbing SUVs and recent wartime rhetoric. Indebted to the 1980s’ Postmodernism of artists such as Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince, the work also alludes to the solemnity of its predecessors; two identical untitled pictures carry the opposing tag lines ‘please don’t hurt me’ and ‘hurt me please’ (all works 2005) – one example of a witty, masochistic riposte that reveals a knowing, comic flair.
Schumann frequently repeats the same image over and over, a strategy that is faithful to the persistence of his source media and that also allows the distinctions between ostensibly ‘identical’ works to emerge. As with ‘please don’t hurt me’ and ‘hurt me please’, the variety and artistic licence of his ‘copies’ emerge through variations of size, scale, cropping, clarity and colour. In replication, content and value dissolve. Like Allan McCollum’s suites of plaster ‘surrogates’, the paintings symbolize ‘art’ while disavowing their own individual meaning through serial reproduction.
Schumann further distances himself from the content of the images by painting the price of each on the lower edge of each work. Values are assigned with apparent randomness to nearly interchangeable objects, and essentially the same work can retail for $10, $100 or $1000. The tactic recalls Yves Klein’s exhibition where his trademarked blue paintings carried different prices depending on their placement on the wall, as well as the production-on-demand manufactured by Claes Oldenburg in his East Village ‘Store’ in 1961. Then, as now, drawing attention to the somewhat arbitrary commercial structures of the art market constitutes an institutional critique, and Schumann’s rock-bottom deals guaranteed the exhibition a garage sale atmosphere that foregrounded what are usually discreet financial transactions.
It can feel disingenuous to discuss an artist largely in relation to more established precedent-setting practitioners, but Schumann begs these comparisons by building up a Conceptual project that is essentially a dialogue with the art world and art history. Schumann is an ‘Outsider’ artist who nevertheless lives on the ‘inside’ of the art world, and his project is an incisive response to the ebbs and flows of the fads, styles and fetishes of contemporary art production and consumption. His job at Printed Matter (an independent art bookshop specializing in limited edition artists’ projects) and his relationship to the Bread & Puppet Theater (the legendary countercultural theatrical company founded by his father and characterized by its communitarian principles and fiercely left-wing agenda) provided a instructive context for his own sceptical fusion of high art and handmade, community-driven culture. Recently one of the co-owners of Taxter & Spengemann commented that Schumann’s paintings were selling fast. It’s a sales tactic the gallery has used before, and the success they’ve found in the down-home carnivalesque approach – ‘step right up, buy a painting’ – reflects the compelling urge towards participation through consumption.
Schumann is tapping into this confusion of desires by using techniques of institutional critique in order openly to challenge the need to commodify art.
In 1982 Bread and Puppet launched the Cheap Art movement in response to the corporatization of art and the élitism of cultural institutions. They wanted to make art more accessible and priced it accordingly. The great irony, as evidenced by Schumann’s show, is that cheap art, pitched in a high-concept framework, by qualifying itself with a financial modifier, becomes even more inextricably locked into the capitalist structure. What is on the one hand a political gesture becomes simultaneously a stepping-stone to the very systems of representation and consumption the work criticizes. It is a tricky task, but Schumann’s exhibition contributes in a fresh and aggressive way to the greater conversation about the ways meaning and value are assigned to art.