Joe Scanlan

In 1988, while working for the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Joe Scanlan coordinated the production of the work for Mike Kelley’s Pay for Your Pleasure. Kelley’s installation presented forty-three colorful floor-to-ceiling banners, each with a portrait of a noted thinker or artist. Accompanying each portrait was a short quote from the subject giving his or her opinion on the transcendent and positive potential of violence and destruction. These banners served as a backdrop for a small painting of a clown by mass-murderer John Wayne Gacy, then awaiting execution on Illinois’ death row.

Ten years later, Scanlan returned to Kelley’s mechanics in Pay for Your Pleasure (reprise). His work is less an homage to the earlier work than an application of its procedure (juxtaposing a culturally authoritative discourse with an object all too real) to different material. Forty-nine banners covered the entire space with the portraits and quotes of a highly various crowd—mostly figures from a modern liberal-arts curriculum (Erasmus and Cervantes, but also Frantz Fanon, Emma Goldman, and Mark Leyner), with a few pop-culture wildcards thrown in (funkster George Clinton, for example). The meeting of, say, Camus, Goethe, Monet, Jane Addams, and Cher is puzzling and contradictory, but the unrelieved cultural dogma creates a seductively proselytic mood vaguely like that of a fresco cycle in a chapel. Given equal stature, each quote carries the compelling weight of aphoristic certitude. (No sources are given in the exhibition or the catalogue, so the texts must literally be taken on faith.) From Plutarch’s “We admire the work, but despise the workmen” (the only time Scanlan repeated one of Kelley’s choices) to Hegel’s “The Few assume to be the deputies, but they are often only the despoilers of the many,” Scanlan highlights the uneasy relationship between the elite and the masses; he subjects it to an operation of doubt and confusion that reveals slippages in the distinctions between high and low culture and the relationship of art and commerce, and considers how value is constituted—and to whose benefit.

The banners provide the setting for the installation’s centerpiece: a pair of used, size 11 Air Jordans theatrically enshrined in a Plexiglas vitrine. Inserting a quarter, viewers could watch the spotlit sneakers slowly revolve for a few minutes. Presenting Nikes as Nike, a thrift-shop throwaway on a museum pedestal, Scanlan conflates the holy relic with the modernist museum icon. Humble as the old shoes appear to be, they retain a powerful connection to Jordan, the basketball demigod whose name they bear, made somewhat poignant, almost folksy, by the ostentatious cultural authority that surrounds them and the self-selected museum-going population viewing them. A few blocks from Chicago’s store-cum-spectacle Niketown, and a quick cab ride from the arena where His Airness became a figure of mass devotion, Scanlan created a kind of chapel for contemplating the missed opportunities of contemporary art, a commemoratory altar to its contradictory hunger for mass relevance and elitist code.

James Yood