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Maybe it's because I'm a citizen of the United States, or maybe it's because I had a Catholic education, but as I move about this city I can't help but constantly feel for boundaries and openings, restrictions and invitations. That's certainly the way it was when I spent four hours last week wandering in and out of the dozen or so small, high-end commercial galleries on Hawthorne Street and inside the 49 Geary building, near that semipublic nexus of art known as the SFMOMA and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
No sooner would I would walk into one of these lofty showrooms with my friend, the young artist, than we would pick up one of three distinct signals. In the upper frequencies we got a comforting "Nice to see you here" vibe, while at other times there was a distinct undertone of "Why are you here?" and, at the low end of the band, an "I don't recognize you, so you're not really here" attitude so effortlessly communicated and genuine as to make a young girl cry.
Though I'm normally polite and accepting, I turn into a hysterical loudmouth when I'm confronted with overpriced objets d' art. "One hundred eighty thousand dollars? For what? That's disgusting." So it was at the Crown Point Press gallery, which happens to have on display through May 20 some Meccano and Erector Set bridges made by legendary conceptual artist Chris Burden, along with outstanding etchings of similar models produced by the talented and dedicated Crown Point Press staff.
Even if you don't know Chris Burden, you do. He had a friend shoot him in the arm in 1971 as part of a performance. He showed up to a visiting artist gig in Canada and spent five days digging a trench with a pickax and a shovel. He literally exposed the foundations of a museum in Los Angeles by creating a pseudo-archaeological dig around its concrete pillars. As an artist, Burden has affected society -- probably for the better. And now, like many middle-aged men, Chris Burden has an expensive hobby. He builds model bridges with antiquated metal toys.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. After all, it sure beats some other middle-aged guy hobbies, like lobbying for the pro-life movement. But what makes the product of Burden's hobby into Fine Art, while the work of some Cliff Clavin is simply fodder for next century's Antiques Roadshow?
At the time of my initial Tourette's syndrome-like exclamations, I had no idea the goods for sale at the Crown Point Press gallery (nostalgic and perfectly executed $3,000 etchings of Erector Set bridges and a $180,000 Erector Set bridge apparently assembled by Burden) also include a portfolio of 13 photogravures called The Master Builder. Of the 13 prints in The Master Builder, nine are taken from old Erector Set manuals. Only two are gravure reproductions of Burden's own plans for gargantuan model bridges he has built, and these are so simple and rough they draw the eye toward the one polished element on the page: Chris Burden's signature.
For a veteran conceptual artist who was, no doubt, paid very little for most of his best-known works, cashing in on fame late in the game is standard operating procedure. Given the marginal role and market-driven structure of the art world in contemporary society, Burden's very expensive model bridges almost make sense. In fact, they fit the world of commercial art galleries to a T.
Bridges unite people. They also enable the transport of Hostess Ding Dongs, land mines, and toxic waste. They are a means to an end. Galleries also unite people. They bring together an artist and an art buyer so the two can exchange money. When I, a public citizen, walk into a private gallery in which business is being conducted because I have been told there is art on display (for sale) within its airy confines, I am pretending to be a buyer. The gallery employees can either pretend along with me or make it clear they see through my ruse. Likewise, the artist can also pretend that what he is selling is meaningful -- and we can all pretend along with him.
If I sounded cranky before, it's only because I had not yet had my afternoon meds. Because if I had the pretend money -- let's say from stock holdings in a virtual Internet company that I and a few million other investors hope will make money someday so that all the other make-believe stocks will continue to float -- I would plunk down the hundred and eighty thousand Sacagaweas needed to purchase that Chris Burden signature Erector Set bridge, because I believe in the power of art to make the world into a better place -- just as I maintain that commercial art galleries are in business to share ideas with the public at large.
And given this, who could blame me for wanting to buy the bridge? After all, a stockholder is born every minute.
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