Hashtags, Bouquets, and Surrender Flags: What Pedro Velez Knows and You Don’t
I can think of a few reasons why writing about painting isn’t a good use of a thoughtful critic’s time. And actually, they’re the same reasons why I would say making paintings isn’t the best use of a thoughtful artist’s time. In a part of the country where A) the market for said paintings is already controlled by a small handful of art barons that don’t need any more press and B) there’s enough happening on our sidewalks, college campuses, and public parks these days that you have to feel a bit silly spending too much of your time in a gallery or studio. Folks are getting arrested at Red Arrow Park for singing and acts of state-sponsored violence are ready to be captured on mobile devices, meanwhile most artists are left unpaid and museums eat our public resources and give little back to the community. It sort of feels like those focusing their professional efforts on NADA fair are missing the point.
So I gotta ask, and this isn’t a rhetorical question, why are we making paintings? It’s a question that I’m not sure has an audience. The painters, after all, are just trying their best to earn a living with the technical and conceptual skillset they were trained for. For over a century, as one of the major hallmarks of modernism, painting has been synonymous with revolution, the avant-garde, bohemianism, and progressivism. And today, with elitism and artificially-inflated capitalism. Am I over-simplifying things? You bet. But the question I’m trying to get at is this, a better reworking of my original one: to what extent can painters be held responsible for addressing the social and political contexts that birth their works?
When I told Pedro Velez in an email that “I am writing something about the relationship between painting, social media, activism, and criticism in relationship to your work and in general” he responded without hesitation: “Cool. I don’t think of myself as an activist. And I think relational aesthetics is just another brand-mostly bullshit.” Which I can relate to. And almost entirely agree with.
The last we saw of his work was the two-person exhibition Revealing Nature with Greg Klassen at Milwaukee’s Portrait Society Gallery, which ran for two months starting in September. Most of his work featured there was a departure from his more well-known body of “visual essays” which have served as a bridge between his already established practice in art criticism and his newer shift toward painterly compositions. For those interested in the ever-fuzzying divide between art and criticism, these visual essays served as useful roadmaps which balanced a well-honed aesthetic with all of the political conviction we have come to expect from Velez’s decade-long tenure as a critic for Artnet.
Though after his showing at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, in which these visual essays were relegated to the basement of the museum (see: “two Puerto Ricans in the Basement” in The Whitney Biennial for Angry Women) Velez took the hint and decided to embark on a more market-friendly body of work. The new paintings, which include a number of suggestive titles such as Cogwheels of Capitalism, Surrender Flag to the Paulson Ricans, and Protest Bouquet, seek to preserve the political commitments he has discussed for so long within a framework of gestural abstraction. The upshot however, seems to be that Pedro is not yet one of those artists who has learned to gracefully maneuver between art world dollars and real world politics.
The new paintings leave long-time fans of Velez’s critical work searching in vain for some significance behind his choice to hand-render trending Twitter topics. And those unfamiliar with his work get the impression that he’s not interested in much more than finding a lazy way to update gestural abstraction. The bouquet pieces are little more than just that—colorful arrangements designed to complement the interior décor of wealthy buyers—and the surrender flags, well, are maybe more literal than the artist intended.
Outside of the context of his work as a critic and Twitter-addict one might tend to take these works as Reeder-esque parodies of activist culture. Funny, but without a punchline. Ironic, irreverent, and purposely sloppy, in an effort to stay inflammatory enough to draw attention, but non-committal enough to avoid any serious confrontation. And though Velez doesn’t strike one as being overly attached to academia, he proves to be subject to the tastes of our academically-minded critics and curators, necessitating a commitment to obscurantism rather than communication, and irony as opposed to conviction. What we walk away with is a feeling of deep ambivalence in the work—a strong drive to engage in conversations about #LaquanMcDonald and #ResignRahm on the one hand, and the need to sell paintings on the other.
It’s certainly not a problem that’s unique to Velez. And to be fair, my criticism isn’t against the work’s ability to function as painting, within the framework that painting offers. Rather, I’m left wondering what in the hell a thinker like Velez is doing making paintings in the first place.
What is unique to this work are the mountains of Tweets and many dozens of critical essays that serve as a useful backdrop to the work.
With over 30,000 tweets on the subject of art, the art market, criticism, as well as local and international politics, a much more complete picture of Velez’s cultural presence emerges. #LaquanMcDonald and #BlackLivesMatter are among his most recent Twitter staples, and he echoes many of his long-held tendencies as an art critic by serving as a megaphone for many small and desperate voices that otherwise might not find an audience. Artists in Puerto Rico, Chicago, and Milwaukee owe much of their visibility to Velez, making even the most simple and innocuous retweets a vital act of art criticism that pushes against the media mainstream.
Though we can already hear painters shouting in defense of the ‘presence’ of the work, it seems obvious that the most natural habitat for Velez’s painting is on his Twitter feed. With Velez, as is true of any artist who wants to participate in conversations that go beyond the hand-me-downs of phenomenology and Greenbergian formalism, the cultural vacuum that contemporary art galleries have always tried to create just isn’t very useful. Outside of this context, in exhibitions like Revealing Nature, we are met with a fragmented picture of the artist’s cultural engagement: his objects-of-consumption are presented on a clean white wall, only frequented by a specific audience of institutionally educated viewers.
What Velez understands is that the contemporary art market was never intended to support communities. It’s a point that most artists and critics either forget or take for granted. The assumption on which commercially successful venues premise their business model is that there will always be a massive underclass of culture-producers whose mostly unseen contributions serve as a backdrop against which curators are able to pluck rare instances they market as exceptional. Those that exist outside the inner circle subsist on the myth that “real art”—the kind that is able to address problems of social importance—happens in the absence of money. Or more likely than not, around the periphery of some day job.
Velez is one of the few who have the luxury of talking out both sides of thier mouth. That doesn’t mean he’s being dishonest, or at least not any more so than those who say “can I take your order” from 9 to 5 and chant fight-for-15 slogans before bed; Or more than the painting professor who trains her students to participate in a market that she knows doesn’t pay. They each know when and where to leverage their political beliefs in order to stay employed.
Maybe what’s unfair is that we still expect artists to live up to the myth that they don’t know any better. We can certainly take a step back and excuse Velez for being savvy enough to balance his political aspirations against his financial ones, and to succeed in a market that isn’t hospitable to people who think like him. Though part of us wishes that he wasn’t, or that his compromise didn’t have to happen so squarely in the center of the canvas.