New York

Danica Phelps

LFL Gallery

While most people’s efforts to track their expenses fizzle after a few weeks, this activity has been the basis of Danica Phelps’s art practice since 1996. Every last dollar gets assiduously recorded with a tiny stroke of color on a small card: green for income, red for expense, and (a relatively new development) gray for credit. Those marks are a constant in a larger, increasingly complex system documenting not only her financial life but also her daily activities and relationships—along with the changing value of her art-making Phelps an obsessive yet whimsical bookkeeper/cataloguer of her own life.

Phelps also painstakingly records her daily doings on hand-ruled, Filofax-like charts broken into half-hour increments. which in the aggregate make her life appear quite considered and civilized (“work on invites for show,” “eat and watch Star Trek with Chris”). This is a diary of activities, not emotions, calling to mind a journal by an upper-middle-class Victorian woman—the artist even distinguishes between dinner and dessert in her delicate, slightly pinched cursive. Also included in a day’s artistic output are a map of the routes she traveled, a red-green-gray financial assessment, and small drawings depicting mundane tasks (unpacking groceries) or things she observed (a car interior littered with beverage containers). These winsome drawings, rendered with a loose, rubbery line and a slightly psychedelic style (most of the human figures are faceless), counteract the potential prissiness of the rest of Phelps’s documents. When a drawing is sold, she glues tiny tracings of it to her records for the day of the sale.

For her latest show, Phelps generously and ingeniously expanded her accounting system to include other artists. She traded work with twenty-three participants in LFL’s extensive archive if flat-files, incorporating their work into her records on the day of the trade. Thus Jennifer Dalton’s untitled lists of her daily food consumption (an apt choice here) appear alongside Phelps’s map and chart for January 28, 2001. Phelps retains ownership of the Dalton piece, so a collector who purchases the overall piece is obliged to buy another work by Dalton to complete the transaction. Everybody’s a winner: Phelps builds her art collection via barter; the other artists receive gallery exposure alongside her; and collectors get two works instead of one (though they do pay for both).

Further complicating matters, when Phelps trades a drawing, she reaches back into her archive for the records from the day it was made to alter them by adding a tracing of the piece, which is considered a second- or third-generation drawing that can also be sold. Thus no artwork is ever really finished; it just becomes part of the sprawling, handmade database of the artist’s life. Phelps presents her drawings and charts in a layered format, on white paper-and-plywood mounts and boards edged in gray-green paper made from recycled currency. These layers gradually build up as the exchanges and the history of the work grow over time.

Anyone who makes art about living the life of an artist runs the risk of becoming annoyingly navel-gazing, but Phelps pulls it off, maintaining a cool detachment from the whole enterprise. There’s a mild voyeuristic thrill in scanning the minutiae of her daily life, but she epitomizes restraint compared to the self-indulgent tell-all nature of some other female artists her age (e.g., Tracey Emin, Elke Krystufek). This refusal to reveal everything throws the spotlight from her life onto the work itself and the system she’s built around it: getting and spending, and doing what one must do not only to get by, but to get something one values—art.

Julie Caniglia