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For an art heist, it was righteous. On the afternoon of June 1st, as the rage over the murder of George Floyd unfurled down Melrose Avenue, a group of protesters noticed a gallery called 5Art. Someone smashed the glass. The few videos that have surfaced show a dozen or so people, masked against the spread of Covid-19, emerge, clutching their trophies—the pink chrome flash of a Koons, the cotton candy hues of skate decks. Then, in the climactic moment, a looter hauls out a four-foot-high KAWS Companion sculpture, one of the artist’s many iterations of a skull-headed Mickey Mouse. The gallery had stenciled its exterior wall with inspirational phrases, which now bookended the breach: “BELIEVE IN YOUR #SELFIE,” “I’M SO AVAILABLE,” and “LIFE IS ____.” By the day’s end, this graffiti would be appended: “fuck white art.”
A KAWS Companion isn’t art so much as it is swag: a toy for millionaires to conspicuously consume. It’s legible in this way to a broad audience—looted, despised, and coveted for the same reason. The farcical image of a greyscale Companion being hefted through a ring of shattered safety glass caught the eye of not just art-worlders, but sneakerheads. Artist Brad Troemel has done illuminating work on the KAWS complex, describing how a KAWS “artwork” slips between the realm of street art, fine art, and plain commercial product.1 KAWS is successful in each of these three arenas because of his aptitude in the other two, but he’s a global force because of the latter. The cycle begins and ends with the object: the plastic Companion statue is the privileged point—the POS, if you will. As one KAWS consumerist destiny spiraled out of control, it neatly phrased the problems of commodity culture across broad social inequality, high art snobbery, and racial criminalization. It provided an image of a moment when all of art’s egalitarian rhetoric wafted away, leaving only a bunch of overvalued plastic and metal (a bunch of stuff). That, and the stuff’s erstwhile owners, who wanted it back.
A high-end purveyor of street art is a contradiction on its face—not least because the genre’s Black and Latinx innovators worked on the actual streets. 5Art’s website promotes the collectability of what it sells by touting its subversion, playfulness, and quasi-illegality. “Street artists are not seen as vandals anymore,” said gallery co-founder Julie Darmon, “but as part of our society’s freedom of speech.”2 (This in a press release for the gallery’s second exhibition, which opened on the occasion of Bastille Day, 2018—the owners are French.) To collectors—if not to cops—street artists are not seen as vandals anymore. Looters, on the other hand… On the gallery’s Instagram, in a now-deleted post, 5Art expressed sympathy for the death of George Floyd but asked for help recovering their property.
“The ‘but’ in this statement,” writes Margaret Carrigan in The Art Newspaper, “is the unequivocal defense of white privilege in the art world.”3 There is a direct relationship between state-sanctioned violence and the act of looting: from the Middle Passage to Posse Comitatus4 to George Floyd, whites have been the brutal arbiters of property. In her 2014 essay, “In Defense of Looting,” Vicky Osterweil writes that “the earliest working definition of blackness may well have been ‘those who could be property…’ The specter of slaves freeing themselves could be seen as American history’s first image of black looters.” And so, “for most of America’s history, one of the most righteous anti-white supremacist tactics available was looting.”5 This is not to advocate looting, or—to borrow Osterweil’s wording— to draw “some absurd ethical equivalence between freeing a slave” and grabbing a KAWS in a riot.6 The point is that, when property rights trump human rights, property crime becomes political speech. This in a country where Black men are murdered by cops over nothings, like selling cigarettes or trying a counterfeit $20. The social contract, like a flimsy Melrose storefront, has been broken.
Even before the March pandemic and the June uprisings, art’s progressive bromides seemed brittle. KAWS inspires schadenfreude, in part, because his shameless commodification demonstrates how little the ideals of whatever glorified financial instrument matter to your average museum board mercenary. And yet: what if a more limited healing gesture were possible, the blue-chip equivalent of banging a pot at 8 p.m. to honor essential workers? Enter Andrea Rosen and David Zwirner, the two dealer-executors of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres estate, who thought they would break the viral grind by bringing one of the late artist’s “Untitled” candy piles to the quarantined masses. They chose a work from 1990 made of fortune cookies, and invited some 1,000 people around the world with various ties to the artist or his executors to buy and stage a pile of their own.
Like many others, I experienced the project on Instagram, where one quickly gleans the variety of stashes of portentous golden snacks, wrapped or unwrapped, in all of their idiosyncratic sites: a landing in an opera house, the bed of a broken-down truck, the elevator of an art space. One group of L.A.-based participants pooled their resources and staged their cookies in the window of a local restaurant to help drum up takeout business.7 A particularly generous, mountainous installation sat in the driveway of a Silver Lake home beneath a Black Lives Matter banner.8 Inevitably, the cookies were also placed inside people’s homes. Tucked beside an Ikea bed; spilling from a decorative fireplace; flanked by abstract paintings and modernist chairs; sloped into barren white rooms that look like private galleries. Deployed into a pandemic’d art world, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) took on all the managed voyeurism of a post-Covid Zoom call, exposing class disparity and solidarity alike—your books, your art, your kids and pets, and your temporary Gonzalez-Torres, all consigned to the glitchy mise en scène.
I don’t think a collective Gonzalez-Torres is the worst idea. Few artists have his flair for making public space intimate, or for merging intimacy and publicity—a billboard with a photo of a rumpled, empty bed, for example. His candy piles come with an almost sacramental invitation to take and to eat a piece, but also impose their own pastoral rules and obligations. Viewers can transgress the usual etiquette—touch the art, destroy it, and devour it—and the caretaker is responsible for replenishing it. The piles have a cool, abstract vascularity. In fact, there was something contagious about the whole project—and not just epidemiologically, as if the cookies should have been six feet apart and come with alcohol wipes. The semiotics spread out of control. Some have mentioned the tone-deafness of scattering a quarter of a million fortune cookies across the world while our racist president ranted about the “Wuhan flu” and “Chinese virus.”9 More viscerally, Gonzalez-Torres made this work in the shadow of HIV/AIDS, including that of his and his partner Ross Laycock’s own diagnoses. One version of the work, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), even sets the pile at 175 pounds, his wasting partner’s ideal weight.10 Any “Untitled” pile would have made the comparison between Covid-19 and AIDS—already fraught in itself —unavoidable.
The curators may wish they’d reconsidered one more unruly detail: participants had to source and purchase their own cookies. It’s not just the price (240 cookies can be had for something like $20) or the minor strain on a pandemic supply chain (Amazon strikes and all). It’s the concept of the ask. By shifting the installation’s material costs from giver to receiver, the curators forced people on both sides of the project’s clear pane of exclusivity to think about the Gonzalez-Torres work not in terms of open, altruistic plenty, but within the confines of rarity, access, and objecthood. “Untitled” duly appeared in its role as a commodity, made of smaller commodities, to be given away and hoarded at every level. Art’s debt to property overcame its idealism, and the project seemed unsure of whether it wanted to be a genuine world-binding gesture, a cynical PR stunt, or a bad chance to brag. Unleashing a thousand hashtagged Instagrams onto our common humanity, “Untitled” gave us an image of how, while we’re all in this together, some of us are in this more deeply than others.
Don’t blame the work—this is the work working. I won’t be the first to point out that Gonzalez-Torres once said he wanted “to be like a virus”—specifically, one “that belongs to the institution”11—to infiltrate, to insinuate himself within that power, and to take some power himself. The “Untitled” cookie piles embody this ambivalence: the double-edged generosity of art, the gift that someone else still owns. The piles share confectionary power. They are very explicit about this, and therefore honest about what privileging the commodity form gets you. So, in his way, is KAWS. On June 9, around a week after the looting of 5Art, KAWS “dropped” a new edition of figurines: furry, Elmo-like beings with X’d-out eyes that clutch small Companions in their arms. All proceeds went to Black Lives Matter.12 The series is called TAKE.
Back in the 1970s, amid the early ideations about art’s immateriality or dematerialization, artist Christopher D’Arcangelo launched a tumultuous phrase at the glass house of conceptual art: “Property is theft. Art is property. Art is theft.”13 Given how large property looms in the most violent, racist parts of American myth, the worst we can do is pretend otherwise—as if art, like the rational splendor of “the market,” lives somewhere beyond our bodies. An art world that truly reckons with its inbuilt white supremacy must face the question of who owns what. Which could be why Gonzalez-Torres doesn’t burn the institution down so much as compel it to give itself away, piece by piece.
Travis Diehl has lived in Los Angeles since 2009. He is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant (2013) and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Art Journalism (2018).
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 21.