Joe Scanlan


Igor Ansoff, applied mathematician and management theorist, introduced to the business world in 1957 the Product-Market Growth Matrix, a schema that mapped the risks and advantages of diversification—developing new products for new markets—for a single company. Ansoff also served for a time as the vice president of Lockheed Corporation, one of the preeminent profiteers of the past four American wars. That fact adds a sinister edge to his pragmatic aptitudes—an edge that also informed Joe Scanlan’s latest exhibition, “Diversification.” Despite the simultaneous generosity and market savvy proffered by Scanlan’s work, from his collapse-and-carry Nesting Bookcase, 1989–, to his sculpture-cum-party-favor Catalysts, 1999—glue-on tears—the artist’s oeuvre as a whole suggests such a Machiavellian level of insight into the artist’s role in contemporary capitalism that his savoir faire can seem positively sinister.

Creating and commercializing in one fell swoop, Scanlan has carved out a conceptual and a market niche all at once. Doing so has allowed him simultaneously to assert his conviction in the generative possibilities of market competition and private intellectual property and to aver, as per Deleuze and Guattari, that in order for capitalism to be overcome, it must not be curbed but accelerated—two positions that have yet to contradict each other, and whose coincidence is perhaps the best gauge of the artist’s entrepreneurial know-how. Behind it all is Scanlan, or the diversified Scanlans: the inventor; the mentor/ puppet master (with his alter ego “Donelle Woolford”); the activist; and, finally, the “folk businessman,” as he once described himself, just trying to live by his art.

“Diversification” is set up like a sidewalk sale of that businessman’s wares, with the majority of the works arrayed on one wall. They range from sculptures to photographs of Woolford to the punning Stool Sample (Smithson, Robert) and Stool Sample (Ai Wei Wei), both 2008, wood-and-metal stools out of which sprout a single, signature “forsythia” branch. The wordplay continues with L.V.M.H.O.O.Q._, 2009, a series of monochromes with hues drawn from Scanlan’s customized self-marketing palette (used on most of his media communications), thus assisting the “ready-made” monochrome with an advertiser’s color sense. LVMH, of course, is the formidable luxury corporation—itself diversified as an umbrella for dozens of smaller brands, a relationship that evokes Scanlan and Woolford’s own. At the end of the line of works (or wares) is Jamais vu (Never Seen), 2009, an homage to David Hammons’s Blizzard Ball Sale, 1983, that converts Hammons’s action into a polystyrene-and-wool sculpture, as a final coup: Scanlan, apparently, can also sell the sale.

Occupying the opposite wall is Dead Stock: No Feeling, 2009, a two-part work composed of a sound recording of Alain Jacquet describing his contribution to the 1969 exhibition “Art by Telephone,” and a mural of transparent paint realizing the project. The layered stripes of paint appear almost allegorical of Scanlan’s layering of transparent critical and complicit relationships to the market, which accrete into something present, if hard to define. Although he credits his viewers with the intelligence to see through these layers, the “diversified portfolio” he offers feels ungenerous in the end; every work is liquidated almost immediately into the strategy it represents, becoming—like Dead Stock: No Feeling—a ghostly remainder of aesthetic form. Ansoff, incidentally, was also known as the father of strategic marketing, something Scanlan seems to have mastered with troubling insight and panache.

Joanna Fiduccia