New York

Merlin Carpenter

Merlin Carpenter is a tactician, skilled in exploiting the critical leverage points of artistic production—fabrication, exhibition, publication, administration, reception, exchange. However, his is not a historical critique of institutions. Rather, presuming no institutional resistance and citing the lack of commonly held criteria for understanding a work of art, Carpenter fabricates exhibition structures in order to operate. Traditional sites of display such as galleries and kunsthalles are treated as sites of primary production—theatrical stages with players, props, and gestures wherein rehearsal begins only once the curtain has risen.

The press release for “The Opening,” Carpenter’s second show at Reena Spaulings Fine Art (and his fifth in New York), is printed in barely legible black ink on black paper, providing a romantic mythology for the artists’s newest series, “The Black Paintings,” 2007, which consists of nine large and four smaller canvases. The works are professionally stretched, expensively built, and, beneath their haphazardly scrawled markings, primed pure white. Despite the deadpan humor of titling a group of white canvases “The Black Paintings,” or of gothically opining, in the press release, that one’s gallery exhibition is an “opening to the black world . . . of . . . emptiness,” this is not pure sarcasm. Black, as the aggregate sum of all colors, does in fact describe a contemporary condition in which comparative distance has imploded and vanished—perhaps even one in which a work’s value is reduced to the cost of its bare material support.

Reena Spaulings announced Carpenter’s show with engraved invitations, formally “requesting the pleasure” of its mailing list’s company. Arriving at the gallery around seven o’clock, visitors found that candelabras had been lit, finger sandwiches served, and alcohol generously poured, and that a pianist was playing for the growing crowd. Recalling Andy Warhol’s 1965 opening at the Philadelphia ICA, at which paintings were removed to accommodate the people, Carpenter’s social backdrop immediately suggested greater “formal” consequence than that of his blank canvases. Then, amidst the “pure potentiality” of what appeared to be art-supplies-as-readymade-paintings, the artist unceremoniously applied black oil paint to the white surfaces. The performance lasted about ten minutes and resulted in several messages, including RELAX IT’S ONLY A CRAP REENA SPAULINGS SHOW (a reference to Carpenter’s most recent exhibition, “Relax It’s Only a Bad Cosima von Bonin Show”); I HATE YOU THE ART WORLD YOU CUNTS (backwards, across two paintings and the intervening piece of wall); I LIKE CHRIS WOOL; and DIE COLLECTOR SCUM.

For those in attendance already familiar with his work, Carpenter uncharacteristically fulfilled expectations, performing his own subjectivity as an artist raised on the iconoclasm of Martin Kippenberger, Friesenwall 120, and American Fine Arts, Co. Though gathering together a bunch of insiders to celebrate such an event reads as classist irony, to leave it at this misses the point. Carpenter’s structures are circular, implicating all who play the game. With “The Opening,” he hedges the cultural value of his gallery—an asset underscored by his 2005 show at RSFA—to enlist its preexisting social body as a ready-made labor force for immaterial production. If in society “company” is invited to leisure, and in theater it’s employed to perform, Carpenter collapsed the two, joining his guests in performing the leisure to which they are privileged. What was fascinating was the ease with which he accomplished this. Perhaps “The Opening” will be remembered as radical theater, or perhaps as a complex diagramming of the period’s market conditions. Whatever the case, it appears that the present desire for Carpenter’s stage is compelling a good number to play along.

Caroline Busta