Photos by Brian Prugh
Coming on the heels of the closing of Public Space One’s downtown location, the opening of a new gallery is a welcome addition to the Iowa City art scene. Steven Vail Fine Arts will open at 118 E. College St., sharing first-floor space with Velvet Coat and the soon-to-be-opening FilmScene. The Moen Group invited Steven Vail Fine Arts, a gallery established in Des Moines in 2009, to open a space in the Ped Mall building, and the gallery jumped at the opportunity. The new theater and gallery promise to add diversity to the art scene and will liven up the fall exhibition lineup in the city.
Their focus is on prints by well-known artists: Steven Vail’s Des Moines gallery has shown prints by Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, Robert Motherwell, James Siena and Terry Winters, among other well-known national and international artists. According to Breianna Cochran, who will manage the Iowa City location, the goal of the gallery will be to present museum-quality work that is affordable to a wider audience.
The prospect of such a space is exciting: In the absence of the bulk of the UIMA’s collection, Steven Vail Fine Arts will increase the visibility of work by major artists in the Iowa City area. But this critic is also a little wary: If, as many maintain, the biggest theoretical problem facing painting today is its status as a commodity, the economy of prints produced (largely) by artists better known as painters would seem even more problematic—a deft market strategy to use the institutional authority garnered by their paintings to capture a market segment of less affluent collectors desiring to own work by artists with serious name recognition.
The critical problems raised by such an enterprise are of course complex. On the one hand, prints make art available to a much larger audience than, say, a painting or drawing could reach. If art works are worth having, the print-as-art acts as a kind of democratizing influence—increasing the possibility of art ownership in the same way that Sears kit houses increased the possibility of home ownership at mid-century. At the same time, it has a stratifying influence, as it allows the centralization of art production into fewer and fewer hands. Instead of spending $3,500 on a painting or drawing by a lesser-known artist, the print economy allows a collector to own a work of art by someone firmly ensconced in the art history books.
Buying a print can more closely resemble buying stock in an artist than buying a particular painting with which one identifies. These questions swirl around the idea of what a print is, and how it is related to a painting. The critical question, for me, is whether the prints—especially the ones by painters—stand on their own as prints instead of existing as a kind of less expensive painting. What is gained by printing, aside from an increase in potential distribution?
I think immediately of Glenn Ligon’s painting I Am a Man, the subject of a recent video by the National Gallery of Art. The painting is based on a printed sign used during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker’s strike. The print owes its effectiveness to its multiple reproductions: It is powerful because of the hundreds of African-American men who marched carrying that sign. That is, its significance is bound up in its existence as a multiple, and the use of that multiple at a particular historical moment.
Ligon’s painting of the sign grew out of his own attempt to engage that history. The painting exists as a unique object within his corpus, created using an unstable mixture of oil paint and enamel, which resulted in an uneven, cracked surface. The instability of the paint provides a crucial metaphor tied to the precariousness of historical knowledge and the ways that different historical narratives tell the story of the strike. But the painting’s surface also provided an impetus for a pair of digital prints, one of which was marked up as a “condition report” on the painting: Each flaw in the surface was catalogued as it would have been by the conservation department of a museum acquiring the work.
Here, again, the nature of the work requires that it be a print, and the relationship of the painting to the print is conceptually quite straightforward: The print must be a print because it is related to and comments on the original painting in a particular kind of way. The flow between print, painting and later print in this case is rich and engaging and has a story to tell of its own. The prints have to be prints and the painting has to be a painting: the character of the work demands a certain form of production. The critical challenge for Steven Vail Fine Arts is to show prints that have to be prints—prints whose artistic character is bound up in the printing process. If the works only end up being objects that would do better as paintings, with restricted edition sizes to achieve no end other than artificially high prices, I would be very disappointed.
The danger facing the gallery is the danger that comes with all potentially lucrative aspects of the art world: work that looks great but lacks vitality—work that is valued because of the reputation of its maker, instead of the life it has within it.
It is, of course, the work that makes all the difference. The first exhibition, Art and Architecture, will open in late September. It should be a provocative show, especially considering the controversial building rising quickly on the other side of the pedestrian mall (also a Moen Group project). I look forward to the opening, and also to seeing whether the new addition to the downtown scene is an exciting new gallery or just another luxury goods shop.
Brian Prugh holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Chicago and is currently an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at the University of Iowa. In addition to his art criticism for Little Village, he is editor and co-founder of the Iowa City Arts Review and has recently finished Housing Project, a booklet documenting the author’s opposition to the redevelopment of University Apartments at UI.