The downfall of Tumblr affected more than just fans of naughty material. The now-defunct LiarTownUSA was graphic designer Sean Tejaratchi’s consistently brilliant and bizarre compendium of fake Harlequin romance covers, absurdist supermarket circulars, and eerily plausible recommendations for fictitious films to stream. But the best — and certainly the most best-known — component was the Social Justice Kittens, a wall calendar of adorable wide-eyed furbabies captioned with over-the-top grievance-culture morsels like “‘Facts’ let the oppressors decide the acceptable boundaries of discourse” or “This isn’t me being mean, this is you silencing me for decades.”
Slyer-than-sly satirist Donald Ian McCaw’s newest project, WORDS WORDS WORDS, comes at a very similar point from another completely warped angle. The self-styled CEO of one “Mba Fabrications,” McCaw is a Toronto artist who made a stop at Heron Arts last weekend for a Q&A on his 20 word paintings — err, wall-mounted commodities in the text-based space — along with one Ian O’Dowd, founder of “UnBartlett’s Quotations.” Pairing quotes with ugly MLA citations, some of the works have self-evidently ridiculous aphorisms like “Nothing draws a crowd like self-immolation,” supposedly taken from a text called My Art Will Go On: The Role of Cultural Expression in 20th Century Nationalist Movements. Some have a creepy, They Live-esque tone, like “Don’t forget to forget.” Others are more gnomic, like “Pretext Is Everything.”
WORDS WORDS WORDS is in some debt to Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, only with a pointed sort of anomie — and the target isn’t necessarily the reactionary right. The entire thing is one big zinger aimed at the bland devitalization of the art market as it falls further and further under the sway of management-speak, and it’s as subtle as it is brilliant. McCaw, dressed in a suit-and-tie and looking every bit the dutiful company man, parried questions with an almost alarming smoothness.
Art is “the most insanely lucrative business model in the history of business models,” McCaw said at one point. “How can someone like me who can’t draw and can’t paint take advantage of this opportunity?”
He “met” O’Dowd when he received a Google Alert that UnBartlett’s had included a remark of his: “I know art is supposed to be a window to the soul, but how do you tell someone their soul isn’t exactly the best feature.” Thus a creative synergy was born, the embodiment of Mba Fabrications’ motto, “A Man in a Suit, in Action.”
While the audience was savvy enough to get it and play along, it’s still an impressive high-wire act. SF Weekly attended McCaw’s 2017 show at Heron Arts, “ARTPAK,” where the C-suite denizen also spoke so fluidly that you could almost believe that that painting-and-performance piece was real, and that the venue had been hijacked by an unctuously soulless execu-Canadian.
It might seem as though McCaw is attacking affluent people with middlebrow taste, but that’s not necessarily the case, either. “Authenticity is the finest of the capitalist virtues” is more of a jab at the online left. He’s a genial provocateur — or would be, if that word hadn’t become the descriptor of choice for bad-faith charlatans.
The show’s title is taken from an interchange in Act II of Hamlet between Polonius and the titular prince. The former asks the latter what he’s reading, setting off a series of smartmouth replies in which the imprudent Hamlet runs circles around the gasbag royal adviser. But Mba Fabrications’ use of words as algorithmic and practically meaningless vehicles for the optimization of sales has little to do with the famously indecisive Hamlet’s psychological perturbations. McCaw is openly suspicious of emotion or feeling; for him, contentlessness is king.
The candid love of money as a “great clarifier” — McCaw’s words — recalls another exhibit that’s running elsewhere in SoMa, “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again” at SFMOMA. Warhol’s fascination with money, both in terms of acquiring it outright and with its alchemical powers of cultural transmutation, is a lodestar here, and the same appreciation for colorful banality breathes life into WORDS WORDS WORDS. We got a bit more of a peek into Mba Fabrications, too. In his remarks, McCaw said that everything is ultimately painted by hand even as the “company” uses unskilled laborers and managers — not artists — to bring its products to market. But isn’t such a corporate structure in conflict with the need to be agile and nimble in today’s globalized landscape? What about freelancers?
“It’s hard, because our permanent staff is probably 25 people, so that’s heavily management,” McCaw admitted. “But we ramp up with on-calls when we get a big hotel order. Especially in Asia, where hotels are moving more toward original stuff and away from what gave bad hotel art its name. When we get a big order for 450 paintings, we’ve got 100 people in the factory.”
No one disputes that the inexpensive raw materials — canvas, paint, a few scraps of wood, a quotation lifted without any requirement to pay its speaker royalties — of text-based art can yield fabulous returns, especially at resale. But what if the trend withers? Can Mba Fabrications pivot back to, say, sailboats or pretty cottages in the English countryside? No, McCaw says.
“Our core business of a man in a suit in action was really a product of our earliest research. It is potent and it transcends time,” he adds. “If you look at Velazquez’s portrait of Philip IV, that’s a man in a military costume in action astride a horse or whatever. It’s a very eternal image and we don’t think that’s going to change until humans evolve in a completely different direction. This isn’t just an experiment.”
It is and it isn’t, because clearly Mba’s trend forecasters have been working overtime (even if they maybe aren’t getting paid overtime). Perhaps the cleverest painting in WORDS WORDS WORDS reads “Give Impotence a Chance,” supposedly taken from a book on Cato by diarist Anais Nin. It’s blue-on-blue, the exact color of a Viagra pill. Check your spam folder if you don’t think there’s money to be made in that.
WORDS WORDS WORDS, at Heron Arts, 7 Heron St., Free, heronarts.com/exhibition/words-words-words