“I wouldn’t say the whole culture has daddy issues and it’s as simple as that, but when you do research and show pictures of naked women, you get no response from men or women,” says Donald Ian McCaw, CEO of Mba Fabrications, Inc. “But you show a male authority figure in a business suit or military costume, and everyone responds: male, female, gay, straight. It doesn’t matter.”
McCaw — or more specifically, the character of the same name whome he plays — wants you to buy his work, which is a common enough trait among artists from Jeff Koons on down. But the Toronto-based Mba Fabrications, which describes itself as “North America’s Leading Corporate Producer of Fine Art,” doesn’t subscribe to romantic notions of the artist as the solitary genius, a lightning rod for inspiration who’s on the brink of madness. Rather, it’s about applying sensible, business-world principles to artistic production, and scaling it up.
What’s most chilling about this isn’t that Mba wants to crank out motel-room watercolors of sailboats from a factory in mainland China. Rather, it aims to replicate the kind of work that makes the art world’s hairs stand on end. The most visually striking paintings currently on display at Heron Arts, a series called “ROLE MODELS,” show a man in a dark business suit (similar to the one McCaw himself wore at the opening) checking his watch, photographing a naked woman from behind, or lifting weights. They all have a sort of watermark in the background, a tessellated pattern called “Mba Nested Circles” that McCaw claims to have patented.
It’s satire, of course — subtle satire on a subject that usually attracts sophomoric put-downs. Although drier and less vicious, McCaw’s performance art suggests Sacha Baron Cohen’s, in that he never breaks character for a second. He parries innocent queries and would-be gotcha questions with an easy bizspeak that’s so deadpan and frictionless that you occasionally think he’s gaslighting you: What’s being lampooned here, art-world pretensions or our own cynicism?
As paintings, McCaw’s works are deliberately mediocre, standing in relationship to great art as Urban Outfitters does with pop culture. What gives them their power is their symbolism as commodities and de facto prop status. Mba Fabrications’ other concept is the “ARTPAK,” an IKEA-ish box containing a five-piece set of customized artwork designed to give any home instant faux-hipster credibility.
“It works well in condominiums,” McCaw says. “These are not paintings for palatial homes.”
Referring to the epiphany he had upon seeing a painting less than a foot square go for $8 million, he says, “I think if you ask most people, ‘What did that person buy for $8 million?,’ they’d say, ‘A precious masterpiece by a French genius.’ But for some reason — I don’t know if it’s what I ate that morning — I think they bought four pieces of wood, a strip of fabric that you’d make a pot holder out of, and a few grams of paint smeared on the surface.
“I thought, ‘There’s never been a business like this in the history of the world, where the materials are so humble, the technology is so primitive, yet the price is infinitely elastic,’ ” he adds.
The way to circumvent the art world, with its egos, its tribally policed barriers to entry, and its galleries all taking a cut, was to ditch the “genius model.”
“I consider inspiration a very suspect notion — certainly if you’re trying to start a business, you don’t want to wait for an idea out of the ether,” McCaw says. “We really focused on what people responded to in art and said, ‘We’re going to create a unique hybrid.’ What you see in our most standard fare is the result of research.”
This is where the humor starts to leach into the aquifer. McCaw claims to have used biometrics in lieu of focus groups — which “assume people understand their own motivations and can predict their own behaviors, and I don’t think that’s true” — and the result feels like postmodernism’s own smug tenets coming back to bite it. If the artist’s intentions don’t matter, it’s not because academics driven by a sense of contextualization and play decided it was so. It’s because consumers who may know nothing about art still know what matches their couch, and it’s imprudent to force any one interpretation on them, lest you lose a sale to your competitor.
Or, as McCaw puts it, “Art is a very poor communication medium, and a very illuminating self-understanding medium.”
Stepping back, it’s not hard to feel like the post-facts world is whizzing in this direction already. Who’s to say that in 20 years, the Mona Lisa will be valued differently by everyone, and only in terms of how much it speaks to our own personal journeys?
Mba Fabrications makes a claim to a type of radical democratization. By neutralizing artisans, replacing studios with a factory, and extracting tastemakers from the equation altogether, it cuts out the proverbial middleman, treating art as any old thing you’d hang on the wall — and extinguishing any last vestiges of the romantic notion of the artist as a suffering soul. There are several available base color palettes from which one may modify ARTPAK at will — TERRA, COMIX, and MIAMI — and their respective creators’ head-shots line one wall. Whether they’re even separate people is up for debate.
Evacuated of any aura or authenticity though it may be, ARTPAK is still conceived as an investment. As nominally unique works, their absurd pricing structure remains intact — or, at least, there’s no logical reason why they can’t be worth millions someday.
Mba Fabrications’ next project, “DEEP EARTH ASSET REPOSITORY,” builds on this. By repurposing an abandoned, one-kilometer deep mine in northern Canada, it will allow people to scan and replicate precious or fragile art, then store them in copper-lined boxes deep underground. Parents of toddlers could therefore display a priceless Ming vase on a coffee table without fear of catastrophe. But more importantly, you’d get to “have it all” — as determined by market forces, anyway.
“We can always just create a new one for them,” McCaw says of a theoretical shattered vase. Meanwhile, “that original, handcrafted work that’s stored underground is gaining in value while the person is enjoying the work that attracted them in the first place.”
ARTPAK by Mba Fabrications,
Through April 2 at Heron Arts, 7 Heron St., heronarts.com.