Monday, January 4, 2010

Producing Production Site: Revisiting and Revisualizing the Artist’s Studio

Guest Blogger:
Dominic Molon

Curator, MCA Chicago

How can one assess the significance of the studio today, not only what it means for artists and the production of their work but also how it is perceived and understood in the larger culture? As an increasing number of artists elect to work beyond the conventional confines this space—eschewing the maintenance of a space dedicated specifically to creating art—how are these current reconsiderations reflected or represented in recent work that takes the studio as its subject? How does the studio currently function simultaneously as a site for the quantifiably physical construction of material objects, for more intangible activities like research, experimentation, and conceptualization, and for the perpetuation of myths about the lives of artists and the nature of art making itself?   While an exhibition devoted to the theme of the studio in contemporary art could attempt the broadest understanding of how it exists today—from macro-manifestations á la the Olafur Eliasson, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami mini-factory models, to its transcendence by artists who have come to define a so-called “post-studio” sensibility—perhaps the most viable approach is to focus more specifically on how artists are extending a centuries-old tradition of representing the space within the work of art itself. 

The exhibition I have organized at the MCA and set to open in early February, Production Site: The Artist’s Studio Inside-Out, places an emphasis on the “studio as subject” to prompt greater consideration of what the space has come to mean and what else it might possibly signify, than how it is (or isn’t) being used by artists today.   The 13 artists in the exhibition—Nikhil Chopra, Justin Cooper, Tacita Dean, Fischli/Weiss, Ryan Gander, Rodney Graham, William Kentridge, Kerry James Marshall, Bruce Nauman, John Neff, Amanda Ross-Ho, Deb Sokolow, and Andrea Zittel, all hail from different parts of the globe and work across various media yet share a compulsion to represent the studio (or incorporate its dynamics) in multiple or large-scale works.

The artists in Production Site, like the exhibition’s curator, are equally conscious of and affected by the relentlessly expansive development and diversification of both mass culture and the art world.  These changes have arrived courtesy of advances in communication technologies and the proliferation of venues for the presentation and creation of visual art in the form of a growing number of commercial galleries, alternative and artist-run spaces, and residency programs.

The work in the exhibition demonstrates a rigorous understanding of how the studio has functioned and been represented throughout the history of art, and also how it has come to live in the popular imagination through mass media representations.  It’s probable that my own initial impressions of the studio—or at least the most enduring ones—were created through the roughly successive experiences of seeing Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons”  contribution to the 1989 film New York Stories and reading Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography of Jackson Pollock (published, coincidentally enough, that same year.)  Both reaffirmed the now-cliché identity of the studio as the solitary space of the heroic (typically male) artist-genius who summons inspiration and unleashes it with wild abandon through the wanton application of paint to canvas.  While these respective cinematic and literary sensationalizations of the artist’s studio have been mitigated by an understanding of the space more consistent with its more mundane realities, it’s not unrealistic to assume that the general public’s conception of the studio and of the artist has been produced and constructed by such depictions in art, literature, and especially popular culture.  The work in the exhibition reflects artists’ absorption of these representations and their subsequently self-aware reimagination and reconsideration of the space.

Production Site joins a growing number of exhibitions, books, and other scholarly and practical initiatives in critically exploring what the studio means now and how it’s symbolic and functional roles have changed since the Renaissance.  One suspects that the urgency with which the studio has come back to the fore as a subject of serious scrutiny and consideration reflects a backlash against a market-driven atmosphere emphasizing consumption, prompting instead a more insistent move towards a celebration of the various aspects of production.   Perhaps the traditional idea of the studio is being given one last hurrah of examination and attention, before more spatially-ambivalent or presentation-site-specific approaches to process become the norm.  Regardless of the larger context (though one disregards the larger context at their peril), Production Site ultimately intends to afford the public access to both the realities and fictions of the studio to encourage a more accurate, nuanced, and complex appreciation of the significance of this space.

Dominic Molon  is Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, where he has curated the major thematic exhibition “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967” (2007), as well as solo exhibitions of Liam Gillick (2009), Wolfgang Tillmans (2006), Gillian Wearing (2002), and Sharon Lockhart (2001).  Molon has contributed to numerous publications including Art ReviewWhiteWalls, Vitamin D: New Perspectives on DrawingArt on Paper; Contemporary Magazine;Trans; and Tate: the Art Magazine as well as exhibition catalogues for Karen Kilimnik, Elmgreen/Dragset, and Muntean/Rosenblum.  He has also presented numerous lectures and moderated panels internationally.

Images, top to bottom:

Tacita Dean, Section Cinema (Homage to Marcel Broodthaers), 2002. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

Ryan Gander, Felix provides a stage – Eleven sketches on which I was about to draw, 2008. © Ryan Gander, courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
Ryan Gander, A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor, 2008. Photo by Jerry Hardman-Jones. Coutesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York


  1. This is by far the best post I've read. So thorough and well written. It gets me excited about the next posts in the future.

    I'm curious what your opinions would be on whether it is necessary for the public/audience to understand how the studio is evolving for the artist? Do you feel like it is necessary to preserve the traditional definition/sense of the artist's studio or is that too glamorized now (almost becoming a distraction to the 'artist lifestyle')?

    You've provoked so much thought.

  2. Thanks so much Maggie. I actually thought it might be a bit "stiff."

    I think it's vital for the public/audience to have a better understanding of how the studio functions, is changing, and is evolving for artists today as I feel this kind of "romanticized" notion of how artists and the art world works is still so prevalent and dominant in the popular imagination. That's not to say that art production should be relativized in a way that diminishes its uniqueness and character but rather there should be better and more nuanced understanding of the wide variety of practices, both studio-based and not. The more people understand the idea of how and why art is made outside of the conventional notion of the studio, the more sympathetic I think they might be to work created in that manner.

    While I have a great deal of admiration for artists who work outside of a studio-oriented practice, I also really like the "studio visit" and kind of miss it when a meeting with an artist doesn't take place there. I also really sympathize with the notion of a "dedicated space" for concentration and production. It's easier for me to focus on writing and researching in the office at the MCA than it is at home. Maybe it's a psychological parsing out of "business time" and "leisure time" based on "place."

    Thanks again for your kind words about the text ...