The Artist as Institution: Natasha Pestich is Jan Xylander’s Personal PR Machine

It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to. Because the institution of art is internalized, embodied, and performed by individuals, these are the questions that institutional critique demands we ask, above all, of ourselves.

—Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum, Sept. 2005.

I am always in favor of a bit of institutional critique, be it blatant or sly. In The Opening Act: A Survey of Jan Xylander Exhibition Posters at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (open until January 1, 2012, part of a larger Semblances exhibition with Jennifer Danos and Marcus Young), Natasha Pestich manages to hover between the overt and the subtle, reshaping perceptions of a kind of canon that most working artists might never conceive of as being canonical: the institution of artistic documentation. Recognizing that documentation is its own form of production and establishment, Pestich has created a body of printed ephemera to legitimize Jan Xylander, an artist of her own creation. This artist “retrospective”—consisting of a decade of screenprinted exhibition posters in varying design aesthetics—establishes the fictional Xylander as a respected, practicing artist, someone whose reputation warrants the energy, production, and preservation of the printed materials pertaining to his work.

This is not a straightforward postmodern critique of “white cube” institutions of display, for even the seemingly innocuous art world substructure of the exhibition poster is implicated in a questionable cycle of institutionalization. Pestich asks, why do we (as artists or as exhibition-goers) preserve such documents? The early 2011 Take Away exhibition at Golden Age in Chicago reflected similar concerns, although what Zachary Cahill described in an Artforum review of Take Away as the “artistic generosity” of ephemeral documentation can in fact be more clearly seen in Pestich’s work as a generosity that is more blatantly self-serving, a generosity solely for the purpose of dissemination and documentation of an artist’s career beyond the short life-span of an exhibition.

In The Opening Act, Pestich reveals an institutional critique much more personal than the white cube. Indeed, Pestich’s self-appointed role as Xylander’s personal public relations machine hovers on the verge of artistic self-annihilation, for she is promoting this fictional male artist’s career almost at the expense of her own. Yet, this is not an anonymous act. Pestich’s name is still attached, there is symbiosis here—she is still participating in the institution. The Jan Xylander posters point to the fact that the cycle of creation, exhibition, and promotion is its own self-perpetuating kind of monolith, and one to be questioned. As Andrea Fraser reminds us, even as artists/curators/writers/designers/viewers, “It is not a question of being against the institution. We are the institution.”

[More photos of the show posters and exhibition display, after the jump].

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Categories: Exhibitions, Reviews


One Response to “The Artist as Institution: Natasha Pestich is Jan Xylander’s Personal PR Machine”

  1. Jon says:

    I saw this at the MIA and loved it, went home and googled Jan Xylander. felt slightly stupid. Great concept executed wonderfully.