Social Networks and Soft Crimes
Paul Branca and Jesi Khadivi
Two small paintings now hang above an antique secretary in my Berlin office: a severe rendering of the word “ICH,” its characters so compressed that it veers toward abstraction, followed by an emphatic full stop against a cadmium red ground. I “claimed” these works by removing them from the wall of my former project space, Golden Parachutes, during the vernissage held for the American artist Paul Branca’s oil painting distribution project, Couch Crash, in 2010, then promptly installed them in my apartment behind the gallery while coworkers wrapped paintings for visitors. For a brief moment, before Branca’s friends descended on Golden Parachutes to begin removing the paintings on a first-come, first-served basis, the twenty-two individual canvases combined to form a muddled German sentence (which Branca had assembled using Google Translate), punctuated by three process-driven works made from the leftover oil paint. While the lettered canvases were given away, the three geometric abstractions were available for sale: an experiment in making the gallery-collector system support another kind of artistic economy. Like a number of Branca’s projects, Couch Crash was a multivalent exploration of the social function of the artist in a neoliberal economy, as well as a genuine attempt to create new systems for the exhibition, circulation, and sale of painting. Continuing a dialogue that Paul and I initiated when preparing for the project in 2010, the following conversation took place in the fall of 2014.
Jesi Khadivi: When we first started talking back in 2010, we discussed how painting might behave socially. This was important for your project with Golden Parachutes because Couch Crash was essentially both a painting exhibition and a performative occasion: a moment in which a group of friends and colleagues gathered and confronted the ambiguity of an unexpected gift. I remember walking through the Schöneberg area of Berlin with you a few days before the show opened and being struck by your insistence that the project not merely be framed in terms of generosity. True, these works were to be given away, but they were given to a community of your peers: artists, who are often a highly mobile, transient lot. In such a community, a gift—or too many belongings in general—can become an albatross rather than a welcome present. Kind of like a charming, yet uninvited, guest. I thought about our conversation while reinstalling the paintings in my new apartment a few months ago. My black secretary desk was abandoned when I left Berlin in 2011, but the paintings came with me in my suitcase. Now, after yet another trip in my luggage, they’ve fortuitously been reunited with the old desk.
>Couch Crash was your second painting distribution project and followed a series of oil paintings you began in 2004 based on imagery from the phone cards sold in your neighbourhood bodegas in Jackson Heights, Queens. You eventually reinserted the works into the fabric of the neighbourhood by setting up a blanket from which to distribute them to passersby. Each canvas had a flap cut into its surface with a scratch-off calling-card code, which gave the painting a use-value: the owner could use it to contact his or her family (or whomever). With their engagement with travel, distribution, and communication, these series of paintings have clear ties to post-conceptual art practices. Yet their intervention in the public realm also has some parallels with social practice. The key historical movements that are often credited with birthing social practice—namely Dada, neo-concretism, situationism, Fluxus, sculpture, new genre public art, and network art, as well as art activism—often evade painting. To me, social practice as a genre is symptomatic of the cutbacks of social services in our neoliberal economy, which artists’ focus on tangible social issues often reflects. It is therefore not surprising that painting hasn’t played a larger role in the narrative of social practice, considering that its practitioners’ concerns are primarily political and not formal. That said, our prompt from Fillip for this conversation was to discuss how we interpret the relationship between painting and social practice. How do you react to “social practice” as a term? Do you feel like it applies at all to your work as a painter? How do you see painting more generally contributing to its constellation of concerns, which often includes grassroots community building, creative solutions to providing social services, and the articulation of alternative economic systems? How might an understanding of the social history of painting inform our understanding of the contemporary relationship between painting and social practice?
Paul Branca: I never really thought about the contested definition of social practice. As an artist, I’m more interested in how the relative privacy of studio production, when presented publicly, can bring people together in its proposition for alternative interfaces, be that in how the artwork is distributed or the spaces where art can be viewed. With the two iterations of my project Fruit and Vegetable Stand (2012 and 2013), I created an alternative to the white cube—in this case, a green shack—as a site of presentation/marketplace. When passing by this functioning fruit stand, I realized that it was closed on Saturday and Sunday, as the neighbourhood is largely dead on the weekends. After some time considering whether or not it was best to ask permission to use the stand, I wound up illegally “squatting” it. I felt that if I asked permission to use it, it would somehow officiate the project, perhaps resulting in complications from the owners. I never found out who actually owned the stand. Rather, I decided to trespass for a few hours. I began discussing the idea with close painter friends who are somehow invested in producing representational work and would understand and trust my treatment of their works. The invited artists spread the word among their respective peer groups, and I received emails from more artists as the project grew. I requested that each participant choose one fruit or vegetable and make one to five copies of it in colour, as well as one in grisaille (for the project’s documentation). It was up to the artists to decide upon the prices. They received the full amount of the purchase price of the works—I simply played the role of the market vendor-cum-gallerist. Over thirty artists wound up submitting works, such as Carmelle Safdie, Sophy Naess, Pat Palermo, Fawn Krieger, and Timothy Hull. While installing the works, I felt the role of the artist slip into that of a vendor as I tried to make these wares appear desirable to the public. I have always envisioned the transaction between the buyer and the artist to be akin to the act of actually buying produce, where one might judge this apple to look better than that apple.
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About the Authors
Paul Branca is an artist and teacher based in New York. His work has been exhibited at Galerie Sabot, Cluj, Romania; West, The Hague; the Kitchen and the Sculpture Center, New York; and LOCALEDUE, Bologna, Italy. Recently, he was included in Painting Now, published by Thames and Hudson and edited by Suzanne Hudson. His studio doors remain open, so feel free to contact him as seen fit.
Jesi Khadivi is a curator and writer based in Berlin. She is Director of Research and Exhibitions at carlier l gebauer and Editor-at-Large of the annual bilingual journal Sur. In her spare time she translates from German under the collective pseudonym Textual Bikini.