reblogged via artreview.com:
Posted by artreview.com on 26 May 2008 at 5:00pm
By Joshua Mack
This past Sunday, Orchard, one of New York's most challenging counterfoils to the commercial art scene, closed, as planned, three years after opening.
The gallery was on the Lower East Side, in a partially renovated storefront at 47 Orchard Street – a thoroughfare once famed for the bargain basement clothing offered by immigrant merchants and now a gentrifying 'hood replete with yuppie restaurants and high end coffee roasters. Orchard was founded by twelve 'members' – among them artists Andrea Fraser, R.H. Quaytman, Christian Philipp Müller and Nicolás Guagnini, historian Rhea Anastas, filmmaker Jeff Preiss and one anonymous participant – in response to a shared distress over Bush's reelection in 2004, a booming art market, and the disconnect between daily life and the exclusive environment fostered by Chelsea galleries.
Spring Wound installation view / Outside the opening of Cookie Cutter, 2008
Spring Wound, Orchard's final show, was as enigmatic, cerebral and challenging as anything the hardscrabble space has produced: a survey of films by Jeff Preiss documenting past projects at the gallery. The show encapsulated the diversity of Orchard's curatorial program, featuring Andrea Fraser, queen of institutional critique, re-enacting May I Help You (1991), her skewering of art commerce and its aesthetic pretensions, and Anthony McCall's redo of Five Minute Drawing (1974).
Orchard's curatorial stance was rigorous, discursive and wide-ranging: one-person shows were eschewed for group exhibitions and newer work was placed in historical context. The relationship of art to political power was examined and critiqued: for example, September 11, 1973 (2005), curated by Guagnani, explored resonances between work made after the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 and work made after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Last year, an exhibition of Polish 'socialist conceptualism' from the 1970s highlighted how artists used their party affiliation to reveal the communist government's bankrupt social policies.
Such undermining from within echoes Orchard's modus operandi. It was intentionally organized as a for-profit gallery and was supported by sales and monthly contributions from its twelve members. As Guagnini explained over coffee earlier this week, by running the space for profit (whether it actually turned one or not), the founders sought to subvert the polarizing categories of commercial and non profit, the former designed to serve the market and the latter a kind of do-gooding lesser cousin. Instead, Orchard co-opted the formulas of the commercial space, the use of historic shows and the association of critics with specific artists – think Benjamin Buchloh and Gerhard Richter – to propose alternative criteria for valuing art.
Screening of Michael Asher's film 1973/2005 / Diego Fernandez, Portrait of My Father; both in the exhibition September 11, 1973 at Orchard
Perhaps the most vital aspect of Orchard's program has been the conviction that art could, and should, involve dialogue and social engagement. Much of what was shown fell under the heading of institutional critique, or engaged global and local political and economic marginalization. Gentrification and demographic change on the Lower East Side was a major topic, explored in photographs and walking tours by Zoe Leonard, Petra Wunderlich and Christian Philipp Müller. Orchard also set up a benefit auction for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a program that advocates for low income and/or coloured transgender people as they navigate the public health and justice systems.
The place was not perfect and not without its critics, both internal and external. Shows were often organized around turgid concepts explicated in overly theoretical press releases. A limited budget – a painful reminder of what does sell today – often resulted in thin or slapdash shows. The head of a university arts program suggested to me that "It is/was just one of those innumerable new collectives, possibly happening as a counterpoint in the real physical world to virtual online social networks. And as cumbersome and 'closed' (elitist?) as anything that is material." Conflicts among members may have brought meaningful compromise for the most part, but Quaytman noted the early defection of founding member Gareth James as indicative of the internal hostility. Guagnini and Andrea Fraser also fell out over the project.
Some things were bound to go wrong – Orchard was founded as a laboratory. Rebecca Quaytman, the gallery director, was astounded at the public's hunger for an alternative to big box commercial venues. "People wanted it to be there. Our events were filled."
Kathy Halbreich, deputy director of MoMA, admired the way Orchard "…put the artist front and centre, not only as the maker but as the interpreter (there was always one of the partners present to talk to). The artists also reinterpreted the machine – and made a place for conversation, the latter being crucial, in my mind, to what I would hope for MoMA."
High praise and, one can only hope, a model for more established venues. But most of all, Orchard was about agency. Twelve people, dissatisfied with the artworld and the political world, and adrift after the death in 2003 of Colin de Land (the founder of American Fine Art, where many of them had exhibited), put their time, money, and commitment into creating a different situation. It's a classic model of grassroots activism and a call to all of us wringing our hands over the intellectual vapidity in many of our galleries and museums to visit and participate in the spaces, which thankfully do exist in New York, whose programs provide a meaningful alternative. Resistance, however, lies not in institutions – hence the original decision of Orchard's members to close after three years – but in action, change, movement. As the gallery closed this Sunday, Guagnini was canvassing the area, visiting sister galleries Miguel Abreu and Reena Spaulings. Then, at 6pm, when Orchard closed its door for the last time, his own solo at Fruit and Flowers Deli was opening.