Emphasizing Inc. as an Artistic Medium

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 13, 2008

BALTIMORE -- If the New York art world can be likened to a corporation -- a coffee company, perhaps -- then the artists in the Contemporary Museum's "Cottage Industry" are the kids hawking espresso on a cart down the street. Their celebration of the down-market and the down-scaled is their business.

By contrast, corporate structures still rule the art world in New York -- even now, with the markets crashing. The big-name artists -- the Takashi Murakamis and the Jeff Koonses -- lord over studios, employing dozens of workers trained to produce work like the master's. In the corporate mode, those artworks are sold through top-end galleries operating multiple locations blocks from one another -- a Starbucksian move toward market saturation.

But that's New York. This is Baltimore. Although "Cottage Industry" wants nothing of the New York system, the exhibition is fueled by its contempt for those markets. In projects varying from the comical to the heartwarming, its six artists (some are collectives) start businesses offering products no one wants, give out free stuff and generally trade in the unsalable.

These artists aim at transformation -- and relevance. If our society speaks capitalism, they figure, why shouldn't artists do so, too? Whether by making themselves into their own brand, imagining a museum that doesn't exist or transforming a suburban front lawn into a vegetable garden, they insert themselves into everyday lives to, hopefully, change an attitude.

Fitting, perhaps, for a show about work, "Cottage Industry" makes us work, too. Text panels explaining the artists' projects dominate the walls; a few images and objects are on view, but their full meaning won't be clear without explication. "Cottage Industry" is not a show for those counting on easy visual pleasure.

Yet those willing to engage this cerebral, slyly political exhibition will come away with new ideas to chew on. That, plus as many cute little tracts as they care to grab.

Yes, tracts. As in pamphlets. Courtesy of Los Angeles artist Lisa Anne Auerbach, the paper giveaways alone make the show worth the trip.

Modeled on the religious tracts handed out on street corners (there's a store near Auerbach's home that sells them by the pound), these mostly wallet-size papers address topics as diverse as McMansions, sewing and germ phobia. Some call for change ("National Gas-Out Day"), offer advice ("Lighten Up!") or suggest alternate gift-giving strategies ("Hanukah Book Club"). Auerbach invited about two dozen friends to write their own messages, however offbeat; many are on display at the museum. The sum is a headful of homespun wisdom that reads like a charming chorus of folks with stuff on their minds.

Visitors interested in taking tracts home have an errand to run. "The Tract House," home to the giveaway pamphlets, is a few blocks from the museum. The museum rented a Saratoga Street storefront to distribute them. Nestled into a city street, the work -- remember, this is an artwork -- offers an art experience in the middle of urban life.

Auerbach's piece, engaging the city as it does, signals that Baltimore is an essential part of this show. With its definitive cool and also-ran status, the city boasts rents cheap enough for the museum to afford it and an owner willing to cut the museum a deal, a feat more difficult elsewhere. Here it feels like a relic of a bygone era.

Something like nostalgia infects the exhibition's other off-site project, "Edible Estates." A clever take on repurposing and the brainchild of artist Fritz Haeg, "Edible Estates" transforms suburban lawns into thriving vegetable gardens.

For the Baltimore project, Haeg's sixth, a group of volunteers convened on Clarence and Rudine Ridgley's suburban Baltimore home in mid-April to "remove the front lawn and replace it with an edible landscape," according to an "Edible Estates" brochure. A photographer and videographer documented the work; the resulting video screens in the museum alongside photographs of the planting.

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