The humble tote bag has become something of an art world standby. Bagged at every international festival, biennale, art fair, and other art carnivals, these simple canvas carriers have found their way however oddly, into the annals of art. A good a record as anything, frankly utilitarian, and not without, especially in the hands of artists, art. But in this sense, they’ve invested this simple object with something almost of a glamor, one easily taken up in their own ways by alternative spaces up to the present.
Upon a first, cursory glance of the press release, the latest exhibition at Important Projects might seem like a foray into artist run low-fidelity distribution involving our old friend the tote bag. One artist run joint inviting another to ship materials in the cheapest/lightest way possible, which turns out to be not always such a bad gambit. The actual experience of the show delves deeper into the territory of exchange and collaboration than just lo-fi reproduction. The exhibition, titled Permanent Collection and curated by Golden Age Gallery in Chicago, features nine artists commissioned by that gallery to create silkscreened canvas tote bags, contribute a found object, and collaborate on an editioned fanzine. Multiples of the pieces do exist, however nothing is for sale at Important Projects—subverting contemporary commercial practice (as well as any hopes of financial independence) and the works’ immediate ephemeral appearance.
Hung on the wall in a small room, the bags serve both as paintings and participatory objects. I first noticed the varying and often humorous prints on the bags and was then invited by Joel Dean, artist and curator of Important Projects, to investigate their contents. Other than simply being able to touch the bags, the gallery-goer can also manipulate their location and the items within, thus subtly altering the experience for the next participant. Highlights include an artist produced terry cloth towel with an image of the Kool-Aid Man woven into the fabric by Jon Rafman, Lauren Anderson’s silkscreen of the sign for the Fred Sanford Memorial Museum, and a shift in scale by Mylinh Trieu Nguyen producing a bag so small it is unable to contain the items produced by the artists. Pop-culture references and plays on absurdity and permanence abound in these simple, thought provoking gestures.
Permanent Collection marks the one year anniversary of Important Projects, an artist run alternative exhibition space based out of the Rockridge District in Oakland, California. Keeping in line with Important Projects’ mission statement as “an experimental art project space dedicated to providing a generative platform for emerging artists to realize their ideas,” Permanent Collection engages with the idea of the commercial art object as the means to an end. Certainly not a new idea, yet it provides a comical and entertaining capsule in which to ponder these concepts, as well as the seemingly ubiquitous, always ready to carry its own for artists and writers, perhaps even collectors and patrons, the tote bag.
- Parker Tilghman