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Michael Scoggins’ alter ego challenges the workings of the art world

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“Decorative Piece (One in Light blue),” by Michael Scoggins


Art Star

By Michael Scoggins

Through Feb. 15 at Guest Spot @ the Reinstitute

Many cultures have seen writing as a kind of magic. To spell something out is to cast a spell. Our own childhoods are filled with writing as punishment (think Bart Simpson) and aspiration (Johnny + Susie = Love). Michael Scoggins’ ART STAR plays on the aspirational aspect of writing in order to take aim at the hopes and anxieties of the art world. Scoggins has created a childlike persona, Michael S., to affirm: “I will be the art star.”

On large-scale rag paper, Scoggins uses blue and red colored pencils to recreate the notebook paper that we may have used more for passing notes than we did for actual assignments. Despite their giant, human-sized scale, the pages are lifelike in their perfectly matched color, the straightness of the lines, and the way they appear to be torn straight from a spiral-bound notebook. Some of the pages have been ripped in half, crumpled, folded, and taped, and each piece features a statement or phrase in childlike scrawl. These written tantrums, like “Another Shitty Painting,” “This is ugly. I don’t need your shiny, pretty, meaningless things,” “Poor Little Drawing” (with a pathetic sad face), are somewhat ambiguous. Sometimes the statements seem to reflect inward, as if the words refer back to the piece itself, or the pressures and insecurities of the artist, while others seem to be throwing a fit against trends of contemporary art. Of all of the drawings, “Decorative Piece (one in light blue)” seems to speak the loudest against art as a decorative commodity—part of it reads, “apolitical and designed to fit perfectly over your fucking couch”—while “This is Ugly” seems to point a finger at the “shiny, pretty, meaningless things” from the likes of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst.

Most of the pieces are signed “Michael S.” and dated, and among the handwritten statements appear occasional stars and scribbles, recalling many of our own childhood experiences when we lacked a filter, when we were eager to say anything that entered our minds. As kids, we didn’t adhere to rules, systems, or conventions of art-making—we simply drew from imagination. Scoggins refers to that state of awareness but uses it to desperately hint at the obsession-inducing pressures to become an “Art Star” that can lead to the tens of thousands of dollars in debt that it takes to go to art school. Aspiring to stardom, whatever that would mean, often results in the making of “shiny, pretty, meaningless things” because the desire for acceptance draws the artist further away from the reason he got into making art in the first place, which was perhaps a more innocent and childlike purity.

Obsessing over success also prioritizes art as a commodity rather than the creation of something meaningful. In a market economy, anything is only worth as much as someone will pay for it, and this is exemplified by the expensive household names of today’s art stars. “Another Shitty Painting,” “Decorative Piece (one in light blue),” and “This is Ugly,” in particular, implicate the art market and collectors. Even the pricing of Scoggins’ work seems to be part of the joke: Any of the full-size works on paper cost, appropriately, twice as much as those that are ripped into a half-sheet.

“May 19th, 2008” seems to serve as a winding, nonsensical open letter to the viewers of this series, hinting at pressures and paradoxes that artists face. In the other pieces, Michael S.’ vulnerability and frustration is more hidden. Artists are always having to perform in a certain way in order to live up to the expectations of critics, collectors, and the art industry. “Can’t get rid of that, write about what you know, be sincere, ‘not ‘assholish’ . . . Don’t let it get you down . . . stand tall . . . BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, Belch!!,” the letter ends.

The drawings are performative, and the alter ego allows Scoggins to challenge the workings of the art world. There’s something endearingly pathetic about this Michael S. and his obsession, and initially the drawings are funny in their frankness. But some of these feelings of insecurity start to resonate. Making art about the process of making art can get heady and insular, but Scoggins seems to want to let everyone in on the joke. If we try to banish the ideal of the art star, we can remember why we started making art in the first place.

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