Reviewing American Fine Arts, Co.

John Dogg: Ulysses (DOGG), 1987. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York.


Colin de Land’s gallery American Fine Arts, Co. had an outsize presence in the art world of the 1980s and ’90s. Interested in philosophy, de Land championed the conceptually driven art of John Miller, Cady Noland, Peter Fend, Jessica Stockholder, Mark Dion, and many others. Though an anticommercial ethos is evident in his collaboration-heavy, politically engaged program, de Land could also be a creative entrepreneur. He hosted seminars for collectors on the history and theory of Conceptual art so they could better appreciate the work he had on offer. Recognizing the potential of art fairs to transform the business, de Land banded together with fellow gallerists in 1994 to host a fair at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, an initiative that would eventually develop into the Armory Show.

“The Conditions of Being Art: Pat Hearn Gallery & American Fine Arts, Co. (1983–2004),” is on view at the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, through December 14. The show examines the legacy of de Land’s gallery as well as that of his wife, Pat Hearn. To mark the occasion, Art in America is presenting excerpts of archival exhibition reviews from both galleries. 

The first part of our archival series focused on Hearn’s gallery. Here we turn our attention to de Land’s spaces. 

A.i.A. published nearly thirty reviews of AFA exhibitions by writers including Holland Cotter, Lisa Liebmann, and Jerry Saltz. De Land opened a storefront called American Fine Art in the Lower East Side in 1982, and eventually operated the gallery under the name Vox Populi. In 1986 he moved the business to SoHo and renamed it American Fine Arts, Co., Colin de Land Fine Art. Following Hearn’s death in 2001, de Land ran his gallery out of her former space in Chelsea, calling the short-lived endeavor Colin de Land Fine Art at P.H.A.G. –Eds. 


John Dogg at 303 and American Fine Arts, September 1987

John Dogg is the pseudonym for at least one person. Various people have been credited with his stylish, up-to-the-minute objects: Richard Prince, Gary Indiana, Collins & Milazzo, Colin de Land (director of American Fine Arts), and Lisa Spellman (director of 303). At the opening of the recent two-gallery, double Dogg show, presumably he, she, or the composite Dogg was there, but remained masked.

Dogg’s subject matter is that quintessentially utilitarian, everyday object, the tire. The artist had revamped the spare tire, taking it off the tail end of an auto and hung it on the wall, with a tire enclosed in a wraparound, gasketed, and spring-loaded metal shell. [. . . ] Ulysses (DOGG) and Ulysses (GGOD) are the titles of two stainless-steel-encased tires, with the word “DOGG” engraved on the cover of one and “GGOD” engraved on the cover of the other. Ulysses, the noble, homeward-bound wanderer, is here depersonalized, American style; the figure is represented by his vehicle—in this case his spare. [. . . ]

Much recent art making has utilized the commodity. Jeff Koons has made vacuum-cleaner icons, Haim Steinbach has put towels, vases, and lava lamps on shelves. Dogg is the tire man, venerating the factory-produced extension of the foot. His works speak for themselves, albeit quietly; if there is poetry, it is present in the nonanalytic concreteness of forms and in the ironic wordplay in the titles—invoking God and Ulysses—as well as in the artist’s nom de plume. The work’s meaning emanates from the displacement of commodity from street to gallery wall. Dogg’s pieces are certainly on par with others in the commodity-retrieval genre. They align with the purity of Minimalism, adding elegance to the everyday.

An element of parody surrounds Dogg’s work, not so much in opposition to other artists as to an art market that distorts meaning by centering it on personality. After all, in a culture where personality is the most sought-after product, John Dogg causes a bit of a problem. Will the artist make himself available to collectors? Can he be invited to dinner? Can you obtain his personality and ego by owning his work? In the end the work stands by itself. John Dogg is John Dogg. [Given the unusual circumstances of these works’ authorship, it is perhaps work mentioning that both exhibitions reportedly sold out.—Ed.] –Jeffrey Rian


John Miller, May 1988

In the press release for this recent show, John Miller writes: “Freud once suggested that in the infantile imagination feces are seen as the first detachable penis, which in turn suggests a primordial, free-floating signifier that serves, no matter how obscurely, as the basis for artmaking.” In his paintings and sculptures, Miller explores what he has referred to as “intimate truths” of a sexual and scatological nature which arise from the infantile (“infant” comes from the Latin infans, meaning speechless) libido, prior to its being restrained through cultural repression.

The principal color employed by Miller is a fecal brown, which he seems to use to provoke visual discomfort. The Real Thing, for example, is a series of three mirrors, each painted with a broad, brown, smearlike stroke that intervenes between the viewer and his or her reflection. [. . . ]

One striking work, Wishing the Impossible, combines a large canvas, painted to resemble a blue sky, with an almost seven-foot-high, four-by-four wood post, covered with modeling paste and gold leaf, which stands in front of the canvas. At the top of the post is a coarsely modeled erect penis, also in gold leaf. The entire sculpture looks as if it were dipped in dregs, then given the Midas touch. Miller’s combination of a sludgelike surface covered with gold, situated against a serene skyscape, indirectly reminds us that taste, or culture, can mask but never vanquish the basic untidiness that rests at the root of humanity. [. . .]

Miller’s art explores elements of quotidian (male) desire that mostly remain private and culturally hidden. [. . . ] Personally, I think Freud’s concept of the “infantile imagination” fanciful, and the idea that feces could be a building block for art seems overpersonalized and fetishistic. Nevertheless, Miller succeeds at memorializing the unspoken-about in a way that, though provocative, is neither vulgar nor banal. To say the least, Miller’s is a unique voice. –Jeffrey Rian.


Nancy Barton, April 1989

On first encounter the images in Nancy Barton’s recent installation of photographs and texts seem to add up to a rather specialized variety of kitsch. The poster-size photos, mounted on Formica panels, are all recreations of the album covers of well-known commercial opera recordings, the design in each case including both a cast list and a dramatic studio shot of the featured soprano costumes as the pertinent heroine. One soon notices that these oldish Lucias, Elektras, Normas, and Salomes bear a notable similarity of visage and that, unlikely as it may seem, one Marjorie Barton is the soprano in each recording. It is hard not to suspect burlesque at work, though the impression is offset by the sobriety of the short textual passages stacked up in a vertical column beside each image. The texts are of four kinds: excerpts from the librettos of the titular opera, quotations from the books of one of three French feminist writers (Hélène Cixous, Catherine Clément, or Luce Irigaray), bits of interviews with soprano Marjorie Barton, and excerpts of a self-interview with the artist herself.

The installation’s title, Swan Song, gives a clue to its multilevel scenario. The soprano in the photographs is, in fact, Nancy Barton’s own mother. Trained as a singer, she gave up her potential career (for reasons she recounts in her portions of the text), and now, late in life and at her daughter’s urging, she has begun performing the great roles in front of a camera. This story of quixotic self-fulfillment is charming, though it is only the veneer of Barton’s work. The artist’s real purpose is to comment on the nature of the mother-daughter relationship in patriarchal society and the roles women are allowed—or doomed—to play. [. . . ]

When toward the series’ end Barton reports that her attempt to perfect her childhood by making her mother happy at last is a failure, she is only stating a psychotherapeutic commonplace—a liability that much autobiographic art attempting to go beyond pure narrative must incur. Swan Song’s real strength lies in the evidence of mortality running through it. We find it in the stories of heroine’s doomed to die, in the lines of her mother’s well-powdered face and, finally and most explicitly, in the last panel in the show—an overhead shot of the dead Salome, into which have been inserted tiny Polaroid snapshots of an autopsy. It is an image that both quiets all argument and brings Barton’s carefully thought-through and executed work to a conclusion of unusual psychological complexity. —Holland Cotter


Cady Noland, November 1989

This exhibition immediately produced a tonic thrill, a reward for the little anarchist within. The front part of the gallery, which smelled of sour beer, was littered with crushed Bud cans lying around an area sectioned off by freestanding steel bars. Inside and just outside this scruffy pen there was also a red barbecue grill and some steel-wire crates, filled with more battered cans, that looked as if they might have been stolen from a supermarket. The whole tableau suggested an impromptu picnic ground set up on a highway shoulder. Other, weirder stuff was scattered along the periphery of the installation. Handcuffs, for instance, dangled from the bars, and a stack of hospital-issue metal walkers was propped up against them. A pocket-sized nylon Stars and Stripes hanging off another metal rack crept into one’s peripheral vision from the far end of the gallery. Out of this small-time Yankee-Doodle chaos, the thought Vietnam—of Viet Vets—emerged.

Along two walls, there were also several ten-by-four-foot flexible, reflective aluminum panels with blocks of textbook print and old-fashioned tabloid pictures silkscreened onto them. From a distance they looked like jazzed-up editions of May Stevens’s word-and-image pieces, but their subject was Lincoln’s assassination, not Rosa Luxemburg’s. The primary-source photographs were of the boots and the suit Lincoln wore when he was shot, and of the bloodstained cot on which he expired in poor lodgings near Ford’s Theater. These pictures called up diverse associations; they seemed to anticipate both Walker Evans’s interiors of sharecroppers’ homes and—as if invisible pages were suddenly flipping ahead—images of Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pillbox and bloodstained pink Chanel. In her less-than-offhand, fey, and funky way Noland wove a whole American cloth—stretching from Gettysburg to Dallas to Saigon—of ghoulish prurience.

This is, of course, familiar material. What makes Noland’s work remarkable is her poetic surefootedness on such squalid turf. What makes it especially relevant right now is the fact that she actually is an American. Ever since the white-trash-style installations of ’70s mavericks like Terry Allen or Paul Thek, Americans have avoided this material and this esthetic. The bald, bleary, and liberating ugliness of the American highway landscape was left to Europeans, mostly to Germans such as the filmmaker Wim Wenders. But this is Noland’s own world, and out of the harsh props of almost-interchangeable schools, prisons, hospitals, supermarkets, playing fields, picnic grounds and dumps, she makes a fine, tough filigree.

A piece of Noland’s may consist of no more than a shopping cart containing a hubcap, or it may be as elaborate as a gun, handcuffs, a notebook, small flags and a baseball bat attached with binder rings to a wall-bracketed pole. But, whether simple or complex, there is a formal leitmotiv uniting all this miscellanea: the mean, bluish glint of steel. Noland shows for cold metal some of the inventive aplomb that the German artist Martin Kippenberger has for softer, but equally mundane, building materials like plywood and particle board. One piece of Noland’s, in the back of the gallery, composed of metal bars and two corduroy convertible-sofa cushions, prepped us for the Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl’s replica of an Arise Futon salesroom, installed at the New Museum this spring. Noland’s sensibility, however, is neither as Rabelaisian as Kippenberger’s nor as absurdist as Bijl’s. On the contrary, once the initial thrill of anarchy subsides, her concise and precise sculptures prove her quite the ideal contemporary Puritan: austere and critical, but, ultimately, well-disposed toward commerce. –Lisa Liebmann


Jessica Stockholder, September 1990

[. . .] In a large installation piece called Where It Happened and in eight smaller untitled works identified only by materials and date, Stockholder compares and contrasts texture, color, and function. For example, in a 1989 piece made of “part of a metal chair, wool blanket, cardboard, metal studs hinged, paint, stuffed animals,” she contrast new building materials with a mutilated chair frame, encouraging the viewer to reflect upon the promised embodied in raw materials and the melancholy reality of what society does with them. Indeed, by not giving the works any title–even Untitled—Stockholder forces the viewer to confront the materials, the colliding messages they carry, the processes by which they were joined, and how their combination affects the reading of the entire piece.

In “part of a metal chair. . . ,” Stockholder constructs an open and airy framework surrounding a colorful crushed cube. This is characteristic of the ways that the interior spaces of her pieces interact with their exterior frames or surfaces [. . .]

While some works seem to be self-contained mysteries that only grudgingly release information about themselves, others erupt with life, such as a tipped-up car fender that seems to spew forth stuffed animals. This piece, and one made of “suitcase, mirror with paint, metal studs, newspaper, acrylic & oil, glue, clothing, formica” (1989) show Stockholder’s ability to transform cold, hard metal into something warm and lifelike. In the interior of “suitcase. . . ,” metal studs are wrapped with cloth and paper to suggest appendages of human softness and roundness. Indeed, in her very best work, Stockholder seems able to magically transmute the nature and meaning of any material she chooses. —Joseph Ruzicka


Peter Fend, October 1990

Though it flashes by with the urgency of truth, television news is a highly selective, carefully orchestrated, and thus ideologically suspect entity. Setting up shop in the politically neutral space of an art gallery, artist Peter Fend, along with video artist Greg Lehmann and computer artist George Chaikin, created a simulacrum of a contemporary newsroom in order to press home the point that news is, on one level, just another human invention.

For the News Room installation, the walls were lined with world maps on which red marks identified trouble spots. A bank of video monitors played clips from various news broadcasts above a long table scattered with newspaper clippings. These included information on some of Fend’s pet stories, among them the Iran-Contra cover-up and Chernobyl, which suggest the news media’s collusion with government in dissembling and withholding important information.

Part of Fend’s point is that the Western world’s vaunted free press is in fact governed by voluntary distortion and disinformation, and that the American public is fed an official line which differes little in practice from that offered the populace in countries where government holds acknowledged control of the press. While perhaps a trifle paranoid, Fend’s gallery installation did focus attention on the dangers to a functioning democracy posed by a news establishment pulled about by the demands of ratings, advertisers, government sources, and an indifferent public which places higher priority on entertainment than on information. [. . .] –Eleanor Heartney


Mark Dion, July 1992

Among artists who feel a need to implicate raw worldly matter in their work, Mark Dion takes an extreme position. For his latest project, he made expeditionary forays to designated areas, collected organic specimens within prescribed limits, then classified and displayed the material in tableaux that hybridize scientific method with artistic purpose. His three-part installation was introduced by a set of three secondhand doors that leaned in a row against a wall, opposite the gallery’s entrance. One was a wooden door, painted white, bearing a hand-drawn sign (a sheet of paper with simple colored renderings of fruits and vegetables), labeled “Upper West Side Plant Project.” The second door, in dark gray, had a glass pane inscribed with need black letters that read, “N.Y. State Bureau of Tropical Conservation.” The third door, in institutional green, had a black-and-white plaque announcing, “The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York (Chinatown Division).” Each of these doors represented one of Dion’s fictitious bureaucracies, offered elsewhere in the gallery in tableau form complete with dreary office furniture.

During the course of the three-week show, Dion spent most of every day in the gallery, working for two hours at each of his bureaus. During the second week, gallerygoers might have happened upon Dion as he concentrated on the marine animal project, for which he had purchased an extensive array of ostensibly edible seafood in Chinatown markets during a self-imposed four-hour time limit. Various creatures such as a blue mussel, channeled whelk, northern quahog, and Atlantic mackerel were already preserved in isopropyl-filled glass jars and deposited casually along shelves and upon the desk top. [. . . ]

Gallerygoers who returned toward the end of the final week found that Dion had made impressive progress. Like a manic crossbreed of Alexander von Humboldt and Rumpelstiltskin, he had swept through all the tropical material. [. . .] Under the heat lamps, about 20 shriveled fruits and vegetables were still dehydrating. As for the marine animals, only one fish—a probably member of the flounder family—remained outside a glass jar, still lacking a firm identification. By closing day, three sets of shelves stocked with catalogued items were all that remained of this odd, but memorable, attempt to merge taxonomy with art. —David Bourdon


Dennis Balk, July 1993

Dennis Balk’s one-man show last year introduced a tantalizingly cerebral artist whose ideas hovered just on the brink of obscurity. He traced humankind’s progress towards private property from its primordial beginnings in what he called a “vast and gloomy subterranean forest.” It’s as if the enigmatic mind of Jorge Luis Borges had been fused with the majestic spirit of Diderot by way of Rube Goldberg. For this—his second show—Balk, forty-one, seems to have gone over the brink. The work in this show was hard to follow, beginning with the first two pieces you saw on entering the gallery. One—Incomplete Display for a Fund-Raising Event—consisted of a lectern scattered with corporate brochures, cards, books, posters and annual reports furnished by the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory; it didn’t look like anything so much as a mess. The other work looked a little crazy, like the remnants of a nursery school genetics experiment. Titled Preliminary, it consisted of two rows of three rickety rectangular folding tables upon which the artist had arranged forty-eight separate groupings of forty-nine little carrot sticks and sixty-nine celery sticks. These pieces made it apparent that Balk’s next-to-nothing esthetic is modest, nondescript and banal. But there’s something compelling about it nonetheless.

The work may sound dumb and look dumb, but if artists were given nicknames, Balk’s would be Brainiac. He’s smart—really smart—but more than that he feels inspired, as if his work could usher us over a bridge to something just beyond the reach of our imaginations. His first show did that. The problem is that in this show we couldn’t cross that bridge because Balk had gotten too far out in front of us. [. . . ]

Balk’s best works are schematic diagrams drawn in fine-point markers on cloth dinner napkins that he pins to the wall in irregular grids of four, five, or six. The diagrams are zany and visionary, as if the artist were suddenly possessed with ideas and just had to get them down. The napkins are chock full of crisscrossing arrows, scrawled drawings of salamanders, flowers and train cars, little marks, captions, boxes of words, and lists of names. In the four napkin diagrams here, Balk massed an enormous amount of content on a tiny act—he tried to encompass the phenomenological implications of setting down a glass of water. But the diagrams were so complex and impenetrable that the work started to collapse of its own weight. I didn’t know what it was about until I was told (and I read those things for the better part of an hour).

Balk hates A to B to C logic. He loves tangents, incompletion, and reversal. He inverts thought, turns it inside out, takes unexpected turns and juxtaposes different ideas in order to create new perceptions of the world. [. . . ]

Perhaps the best piece in the show is a fifty-seven-page book that Balk wrote and published. Titled Alexandria, it takes you on an amazing journey through early Christian texts and the fabled ancient library at Alexandria. It’s lucid and nothing if not brilliant. But it’s a book—not an object—and the key to any successful conceptually based art is to embed thought in material. Otherwise everything’s just a dream. —Jerry Saltz


John Waters, March 1997

“Director’s Cut,” the title of John Waters’s recent exhibition, is a term that once signaled the auteur’s hand in the purest, most artful version of a film (as in the “director’s cut of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia”). These days, it more often means the raunchier version not likely to be found at Blockbuster (as in “the director’s cut of Showgirls”). Either way, it works here. Waters shoots images from televised movies to create low-resolution stills from a vast array of films, including his own. The stills are organized in new contexts, some of which seem to be storyboards for movie scenes—both real and imagined—that would appeal to fans of Waters’s refined tasetelessness.

Several works narrate fictitious scenes from movies no other director would make, such as the sequence that begins with an overweight Liz Taylor and follows her transformation by the miracle of plastic surgery into a deadringer for Waters. (Pity Liz, a particular obsession for Waters. The show includes a fetishistic accumulation of pictures of her hair and feet and a diptych that puts here in a close-match beauty contest with Divine.) Other storyboards freeze actual film sequences, such as Frank Sinatra shooting heroin in six stills from The Man with the Golden Arm or the strip of eleven stills that culminates with Carroll Baker climbing out of bed (finally!) in Baby Doll. These movies might be expected to appeal to the director of such films as Female Trouble, because they offended Hollywood’s restrictive moral code in the mid-’50s. Waters appears to be faithful to the original directors’ cinematic representations of abjection; he is even loyal to the medium, suggesting motion in Sinatra’s frantic effort to tie off his arm and Baker’s languid rise to her feet. But the sequences were clearly directed by Waters, who knows viewers were captivated by the image of Sinatra shooting up, not by the film’s antidrug message.

Divine, Mink Stole, Edith Massey and other stars from Waters’s constellation are well represented in these stills, so fans can follow with ease the director’s detour into an art gallery. But they will also find qualities they may have missed in Waters’s films, such as his encyclopedic command of trash culture and his passionate eye for peripheral details. There is something masterly about groupings such as Dorothy Malone’s Collar (eight pictures of Malone in different films wearing identical collars), Francis (juxtaposing Jessica Lange as Francis Farmer with Francis the Talking Mule) and 7 Marys (six stills of actresses as the Virgin Mary and one picture of a surprised Paul Lynde). These transcend the brilliance of the punch line. Granted, you just won’t get it if you don’t share Waters’s dedication to movies (extra credit if you understand the pairing of directors Alfred Hitchcock and William Castle). But for those most at home in dark theaters, Waters more than satisfies. —Grady T. Turner


Ian Wallace at American Fine Arts at P.H.A.G., March 2002

Inevitably, photographs of New York City street life have taken on a different cast since Sept. 11. Depictions of bustling masses of pedestrians and the ballet of cars and cabs enacted beneath looming skyscrapers provide an image of urbanism that suddenly seems fragile and vulnerable. Canadian artist Ian Wallace sets paired photographs of the city against the more stable order of geometric abstraction. Each work contains two photographs of the same New York street corner, taken from slightly different perspectives, which are flanked by various bands of color. The eye is drawn from the cool, ordered framing devices to the chaos within the photogs.

Several works focus on Times Square, allowing the cacophony of billboards and neon signs to nearly overwhelm the figures and vehicles scurrying below. The landmarks shift with the camera’s varying positions within the same intersection, while the flow of traffic never stops. [. . .]

The device of shifting perspectives focuses attention on both the similarities and the differences of the views provided. One thinks of the old stereoscopic glasses in which slightly altered vantage points created a three-dimensional effect. However, the divergences here are too great for such an illusion. Instead they suggest the idea of the city as a place of constant motion that can only be made to stand still by the fictions of the camera. Juxtaposing these images with the motifs of modernist painting is meant to contrast the heterogenous experience of city life with the ideal of modernist purity. In the end, however, the static bands of color seem to serve only as decorative framing devices disconnected from the more vital energies of the photographs within. –Eleanor Heartney