The Coveter is a group exhibition exploring artists engaging with the concept and practice of collection.
Fundamental to the human experience is the impulse to collect. It allows us to safeguard the past, understand the present, and organize the future. As Walter Benjamin noted, “Ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” Stemming from the Latin legere meaning “to gather”, it linguistically syncs to our earliest roles as hunter-gatherers. What fuels this quest for beauty is desire and while its focus is mutable, the tendency is not. Whether religious relics in the Middle Ages or antiquities like those assembled on the Grand Tours of the 18th century, we covet material culture. For each of the artists in The Coveter, collecting informs, actuates, or determines his or her work. Whether expressed in content or concept—the compulsion to collect is inescapable.
Functioning as portraits of collections, Louise Lawler’s images capture the journeys of artworks after their creation. Lawler’s photographs are at once forensic and candid, and expand the frame of the image to make the act of collecting an unwitting subject. Insight and commentary into the psychological underpinnings of collecting can be found in the work of another Pictures Generation artist, Barbara Bloom. Throughout her practice, Bloom explores the meaning accumulated and coded into objects as they pass through various modes of exchange. Operating as gifts and collectibles, Bloom’s objects often function as metaphors for how the human psyche propels items in and out of ownership. In juxtaposition to the hyper specificity of Lawler and Bloom, Allan McCollum’s Surrogates are presented as readymade collections. Referring to them as painting in a “generalized state”, McCollum’s molded paintings become anonymous props meant to draw attention to the cultural channels through which they are disseminated.
For other artists, the very act of collecting, organizing, and presenting forms the basis of their work. The tradition of Wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosities, finds formal and conceptual resonance with a number of artists including Joseph Cornell. Known as a “dime store connoisseur”, Cornell turned his studio into a repository of curios with which he filled his signature shadow boxes. More informal but equally curated were Robert Rauschenberg’s “Scatole Personali” (Personal Boxes) made in 1952-53 while traveling through Northern Africa with Cy Twombly. These works feel at once fetishized and mystic as the collected material is offered without any pretense.
Authenticity, rarity, and the ability to possess are the tenets on which most collecting is undertaken. However the works by the following artists are governed by conceptual underpinnings that interfere with these assumptions. In each case, the attempted dissemination or reception of these artworks leads to their destabilization and ambiguity.
Ryan Gander’s Alchemy Boxes demand the faith and trust of their audience. Assuming the role of collector, Gander’s installations are composed of self-styled time capsules for which the contents are enumerated in a text on a nearby wall. As the box is sealed, it is impossible to confirm its contents without destroying the work. This inevitably prompts the question: are you collecting the object or the idea of the object?
Whereas Gander creates doubt at the point of inception, Darren Bader intervenes in the covenant of ownership. The prosaic items that make up Bader’s To Have and to Hold series are disparate in source but uniform in price and direction. Each object comes with a set of 7 directions that lead the owner on a quest for value – intellectual, emotional, personal. However, in following Bader’s directions, intensifying one’s relationship to the object simultaneously means sabotaging it, as he encourages the owner to dilute its value by first collecting identical objects and then eventually destroying the indexical object. In doing so Bader provides a roadmap for the ultimate collecting experience while negating it at the same time.
Within Bader’s work there lays a fundamental tension in the act of collecting between the exacting force of connoisseurship and accumulation. When intermingled, a mania begins. Each of the artists in The Coveter approaches the word “collect” as a different part of speech. Whether looking at collections, acting as a collector, or infiltrating the act of collecting, each captures this shared impulse to have and to hold.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, (1931; rpt., London: Fontana, 1973) 60.