Lifting — Theft in Art

by Laura Lark April 24, 2008

Ann Messner stealing at the summer end sale

Judging by how often you hear museum guards order visitors to “step away from the art,” it’s easy to see how art can be irresistible. The fact that there’s a need for a guard at all shows that the stuff appeals as much to the hand as to the eye.

Lifting — Theft in Art
, curated by Gavin Morrison and Fraser Stables of Atopia Projects and currently on view at TCU’s new Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, addresses this urge by bringing together several artists who cross the line of mere appropriation and incorporate theft into their own artistic practices. What makes this show particularly compelling are the different motivations and subtexts that each artist brings to the project.

Theft as a subversive political act — the triumph of the everyman (or woman) over oppression or crass commercialism — is prevalent and is most heroic and inspiring in Ulay‘s  Da ist ein kriminelle Beruhrung in der Kunst (There is a Criminal Touch to Art) (1976). The project pairs photo documentation of Ulay’s activities with wall text. The artist’s life-long revulsion to Adolf Hitler’s favorite painter, Carl Spitzweg, prompted him to steal Der arme Poet (The Poor Poet) from Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie and install it in the home of an immigrant Turkish family. The painting was ultimately returned, but Ulay’s pioneer act of theft as art made him a revered and reviled figure in Germany. Such is the fate of the trendsetter. Der arme Poet, upon return, was subsequently installed in an 18th century chateau, only to be stolen in 1989 and never seen again.

Ann Messner’s stealing at the summer end sale is a looping video of the artist, in full view of surveillance cameras and fellow shoppers, stuffing tee shirts into a bag and putting them on, one on top of another, over her own shirt. Although the other customers notice what she is doing, no one stops her, and no one seems to care. Stealing from C&A, a large, low-budget chain, seems inconsequential, as if every person should be allowed to take something from a faceless corporation. Even the title, all in lower case, seems to say, "no big deal."

Micah Lexier
‘s untitled drawings transform documentation of menial labor into something precious. His "drawings,” in actuality, are logs kept by restroom attendants. By nabbing the pieces in a curatorial gesture and recontextualizing them, he transforms someone’s everyday drudgery into what he calls a marriage between Agnes Martin and Marcel Broodthaers. The artist also noted that his interest was aroused by the idea of some poor schmo (my words, of course) keeping this log as a report to The Man. In a subtler way than Ulay’s or even Messner’s, Lexier’s gesture points to the invisibility of the working class. Its political tone is quieter, but more poignant and poetic for that.

Dennis Oppenheim's hubcap collection...

Not all artistic impulses here are so high-minded. Luis o Miguel’s El Prestamo (The Loan) recounts, via wall text, how the artist holds up a man at gunpoint on the streets of Guatemala City in order to fund an art exhibition. Luis o Miguel’s work, in stark contrast to the previously mentioned projects, forces the viewer to confront disturbing questions about the boundary — if one exists — between contemporary art and crime.

Gestures such as this, in which an artist seems to be screaming, "Pay attention to me/ my work/ my world, dammit!" take on many different forms here. Scott Myles, for example, created an artistic intervention by shoplifting glossy magazines at train stations and airports, reading them en route, and then returning them to the magazine racks at his destinations. Before giving them back, however, he inserted a card with his statement of intervention. When someone bought the magazine they became Myles’s unwitting audience/participant/victim. The card notified them that their merchandise had been altered/compromised/enhanced — however they chose to look at it. Again, though, Myles’ subtlety and seemingly insignificant act highlights an impulse, common to us all, to attract another’s attention and thereby validate our own existence. But reading the artist as an attention-hungry pup is one-sided. Myles also subverts the power of the gallery system and how we look at art by creating an exhibition on a stranger’s lap.

Predictably, many works lean, at least on the surface, toward the schoolboy prank, making the viewer a fellow conspirator. Dennis Oppenheim‘s collection of hubcaps, beautifully splayed across the corner of the gallery, riffs on the greatest cliché in petty thievery. High above the installation, a video shows the hubcap hijack taking place. Oppenheim’s poke at authority and the small-time outlaw draws us in as accomplices. The very title of the crime — petty — makes it seem like you’d be kind of a jerk to make a stink about it. It’s a hubcap, for chrissake!  

The Art Guys' stolen meat mallet

The Art Guys, in their usual tongue-in-cheek manner, turn cultural shoplifting into a joke that we, as seasoned art viewers, are in on. Displayed in a finely crafted glass vitrine is a meat tenderizing mallet that was stolen from one of the artists’ friends. This common object rests on a velvet bed and bears a golden nameplate. Like Myles, The Art Guys mess with common notions of art exhibition and display, but with their trademark overt nudge and wink.

There are artists in this show, too, whose brand of "lifting" seems to have a more personal, psychological bent. Some of Jon Routson‘s Bootlegs — videos of popular movies, in their entirety, that Routson shot while sitting in the theater — are on view. The quality of the bootlegged copies makes them barely watchable —jerky motions, people getting up and walking in front of the artist filming, the flickering of the cheap camera — but Routson’s re-filmings rather poignantly address how we view, re-view and share our experience of a movie (but wait . . . did I, at any time, ever want to see Mean Girls anyway?). Watching these videos  prompts one to examine our vulnerability to the smooth polish of a Hollywood production. When I first started viewing Todd HaynesFar From Heaven, it had such a shitty black and white rerun quality to it that, in combination with the retro-style text, I thought I was watching an old tape of Peyton Place. In the end, though, Routson’s low tech bootleg seems boyish: sure, he stole/illegally appropriated the movies, but it somehow felt more like an arty update on sneaking your friends in the back door of the cineplex.

Allison Weise
‘s Untitled, a pile of cruddy looking handmade doorstops, also had the air of a naughty child about it. Though in an interview Weise imparts a socio-political reading to the work, the real feel of the piece was more personal and quietly pathological. Weise admits that her thefts brought about a bit of guilt, as she’d inconvenienced her peers with the act, but it is as if something tiny and dark in her psyche couldn’t stop her from taking them — or make her give them back. Like a pre-teen girl in Woolworth’s who can’t resist palming something shiny from the baubles counter, Weise couldn’t stay away from these worn out pieces of wood. That this artist coveted such an ordinary, rather inconsequential object is fascinating. Weise’s collection of doorstops is relatively small, and they make an unassuming pile in the gallery. This adds to the work’s niceness. It has an intimate and personal air that the documentation of some of the more ambitious lifters’ projects lack.

Allison Weise's swiped doorstops

On Saturday, April 12, there was a great panel discussion led by curators Gavin Morrison and Fraser Stables along with Patricia Hernandez of Houston’s DiverseWorks and TCU Professor of Criminal Justice Jeff Farrell. Morrison and Stables had to confess that Hernandez’ presence on the panel was due to the fact that it was actually her idea that the curators lifted for the premise of the show. Jeff Farrell’s comments — infinitely quotable, perversely anti-establishment, and surprisingly well versed in contemporary art — can also be found in the accompanying catalog.

One thing, however, haunted me about this exhibition (and Stables brought this up in his discussion): if all these artists are thieves, might they not all be liars too? In Ann Messner’s stealing at the summer end sale, we see her piling tee shirts into her bag and onto her back, but we don’t see her leave the store. We don’t know for sure if she got away with it, or if she even tried. And who knows? That meat tenderizing mallet from The Art Guys? Couldn’t they have picked it up at Williams-Sonoma? It’s a tad troubling, but as one tries to get to the bottom of what Lifting signifies, one can’t help but be led to questions about trust, gullibility and the elusiveness of the real.

Of course, the most obvious thing to do at an exhibition about stealing is to steal something, which is precisely what I set out to do. I successfully nabbed a doorstop, and without much trouble, picked up a hubcap and put it in my shirt. I am a lousy thief, however, and an even worse liar. Whilst crossing the campus with the curators and a few others, I finally stopped short and said, "I can’t take it any more," and pulled out my hubcap. That thing was really chafing me. I returned the doorstop, too, which foiled my fantasy of sending the objects back to Fort Worth from Houston in a box from the Gap.

Both Stables and Morrison made me feel quite ashamed of myself.

 The exhibition catalog with essays and artist interviews is available in pdf format at the Atopia Projects website.

Lifting — Theft in Art

Fort Worth Contemporary Arts
, Fort Worth, Texas
April 11 – May 31, 2008


Laura Lark is an artist and writer in Houston. 





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