December 14, 2008
ALMOST FAMOUS: a shortlist exhibition
Detroit's Kresge Prize Finalists Go Down for the Count
by Richard Krug for The Sunday Times
- The very first Kresge Prize exhibition looks like a dud. The six
shortlisted artists on view at Detroit’s Museum of New Art (MONA)
struck me as unusually similar. Normally such outings try to
create some variety or change of pace if only because the
exhibition that accompanies any prize is made livelier when there
is a good mix of painting and sculpture as well as film,
photography and installation art in it.
That means that
this first shortlist, titled Almost Famous, focuses on one
kind of art-making in Detroit to the exclusion of all others. And
that would be painting.
But are these
odd decision was made before the Kresge jurors even met: to make
the work more palatable for this conservative art town, nearly all
of this exhibit’s work has been digitally captured and transferred
onto canvas, no matter what its original medium – all stretched,
varnished and presented as rather traditional paintings.
Any concept art has been forcibly shunned here, unlike London’s
Turner Prize which champions it to a fault. Oddly though the
Kresge Prize, with its absurdly restrictive presentation, calls
into question all our current understanding of what constitutes
contemporary art. Something the Turner has attempted since
1991, most often to shallow effect.
An object reduced only to an art context – Is IT STILL ART?
displaying all the entries as “art”, by exhibiting everything as
“paintings”, the Detroit work is stripped of either the
sensational or the difficult, and straight-jacketed from using
arty gimmicks or hey look-at-me grandstanding.
This forced gambit does uncomplicate
the chaotic flux of contemporary art and trends, but at the same
casts an eerie
quality over the entire exhibition.
stands more like a crime scene recreation, with sketch artist
renditions of the real thing.
Mostly photography based, of mainly realistic scenes, deceptively
nonchalant in composition and subject matter – but by way of its
“pure” presentation is emptied of implicit meaning or edge.
Harnessed to the most traditional medium of all, the exhibit has
unintentionally freed itself to become art that no longer depends
on the obscure reference to be understood.
What’s left you might ask.
Altogether, it creates the kind of contemporary art spectacle you
don't usually get anymore: room after room of miscellaneous
paintings, everything very cleanly shown, and with clear space
around it. The display is unobtrusive, though not exactly rousing.
The works appear like a succession of solid trophies, each one
asking above all to be noticed.
A woman perched on the toilet is vying with a man gunned down in a
street – both works having once hoped to land the Kresge Prize,
now the world’s largest arts award by ten.
DOWN FOR THE COUNT
first contenders are not "trying to be sensationalists," Cesar
Marzetti answered, as to whether he viewed this exhibit as
Detroit’s own version of the notorious Sensation show that
a decade ago thrust so many young British artists onto the world
stage. "Detroit artists are just trying to deal with the issues of
the 21st century."
put all the stress on a failed shortlist, as this show does, is
strange. Although the main objective of the Kresge Prize isn't to
foster talent through reward, the competitive aspect still becomes
an enormous public lure. Obviously one the Museum of New Art could
not resist to exploit by mounting this show.
too, certainly, the Kresge Prize itself will be judged in coming
years as an instrument of publicity: for the nominees, for
contemporary art, and for the sponsor. Indeed, the prize
has the potential
Detroit's contemporary art scene onto an entirely new publicity
was the target set for distinguishing the shortlist from the
final winner,” one juror confided anonymously.
securely maintain the prize's impartiality, jurors were required
not to have viewed nor have any personal knowledge of the
nominees' work over the past five years; nor, were they allowed to
either speak with, interview or visit the artists nor their
studios. All decisions were made from a simple viewing of twenty
digital slides from each artist.
the end, everyone is happy when these decisions are made solidly
safe and meet community standards everywhere: the caveat being
that the final choice can be exhibited anywhere in the world
without causing a ripple of controversy.
THE PRIZE FIGHT
When the Turner prize was established in 1984 it had no age
restrictions. At this point, neither does the Kresge. There will
always be compromise voting and favoritism in the process, but
the greatest fear to many artists is that the Kresge Prize will
become a lifetime achievement award of some kind; while the
eighteen smaller but still-handsome "fellowships" given later in
the year will address only the untried young.
According to Marzetti, "If the Kresge Prize simply becomes a
star search for the safe, the old and the established - it will
totally cripple its ability
to be the benchmark that distinguishes Detroit artists.
If it sets out to be Detroit's Nobel Prize for Art, all the top
people will be used up in the first five years.
It wildly overshoots, and the
overwhelming majority of Detroit's best will be rendered
But has such a purpose even been defined yet?
"The Kresge Prize remains open to any artist who meets the
proposed qualifications," Marzetti emphasized, slamming one hand
on the table, "and that is to recognize artistic innovation and
to reward integrity, depth of vision and singularity of purpose.
And for now, at any age and at any point in one's career.
"This prize shouldn't set out to be a career-ender, but
to acclaim an artist at the height of his abilities. Not to
attempt to decide Detroit's greatest living artist, but its most
outstanding to date. It should be a moment-in-time celebrated,
not a time capsule to be buried at night in the city square."
London's Turner Prize briefly dropped their shortlist
exhibition in 1988, critics and public alike hated being
deprived of the opportunity to compare works, to approve or
disapprove of the selections, and the fun of trying to predict
who would – or wouldn't – win. In 1991 the Turner shortlist,
and exhibition of work by shortlisted artists, was reinstated.
In Detroit there are many who argue that a
similar competition is the best way to attract widespread
interest, but that the Kresge administrators are half-hearted
about attracting media coverage. Such a competition would
possibly achieve the impossible here: establishing a Detroit
contemporary art event as something of national concern and
Jef Bourgeau, director of the Museum of New
Art, holds a slightly different view: "The whole idea of a
race and a winner is demeaning to art. I also have particular
concerns about the shortlist, since all but one would be seen
as losers in a race they hadn't chosen to enter. There is also
uncertainty at this early point as to what the Prize is
actually for: is it to acknowledge the work of Detroit's most
reputable senior artists? Or should it highlight younger but
transformative talent? And if you have both types of artist
on one shortlist, how do you possibly decide between them?"
Having said that, Bourgeau explained why he
eventually agreed to this exhibition: "The shortlisted artists
for this prize were told that they should feel honored just to
be nominated. I see Almost Famous as giving the
shortlisted some small acclamation for their commitment to
Detroit and their laudable contributions to its culture.
"And for the general public, such a notable
award should be more than a mere announcement. It should allow
us all the occasion to see some of the best art being honored
in Detroit. Detroiters need to come to know their artists,
young and old, untried or true. And I firmly believe the
Kresge Prize and its fellowships will be a first step at
correcting this lapse."
With such little fanfare raised
during this first selection, there is small hope.
And, for some,
that means the Kresge Prize has failed its larger purpose:
art will be
discussed in a way it hasn't been for decades.
Two for the price of one
Marzetti, the museum’s curator, has written two versions of the
same essay for the catalogue: one for those over 50 years old, and
one for those younger. When cornered about simply recycling an old
essay he'd written a few years ago, Marzetti responded angrily:
“All of modern art is recycled. Since the beginning of the 20th
century. Artists cannibalize each other and regurgitate. After 100
years the same spew tends to get thinner yet more seductive at the
“Our audience,” he explained, pulling his gray-tinged hair back
into a ponytail, “they are of two distinct groups. One is the
young academically avant-garde. Academic because for them art is
made not to communicate but to be explained. The other is the old
school. Those who take it all at face-value, simple technique and
vision. One is hip, one is not. And my intention with one essay
for both, was to address each in a language that they are
familiar. While maintaining the integrity of the overall essay and
my own reputation among both camps.”