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Jan Larsen’s exhibition Market Makers, now on view at the Hoerle-Guggenheim gallery, gives a glimpse into the true art of mass marketing from the ’50s and ’60s. By presenting images from major mass media market campaigns from a time when the United States’ communication industry was booming, this exhibition is showing us the art of commerce, and is making us read the fine print. We caught up with Larsen to speak about the exhibition’s three different series, the intersection of art and marketing, and Market Makers’ overall message.
WHITEWALL: “Market Makers” shows some of your work from the past 15 years, from three different series. What was the starting point for each series?
JAN LARSEN: “Market Makers” is made up of three new series in three different media – canvas, digital photography, and bronze. The starting point for each series was my meditation on the transition from focusing on the business of fine art to the production of it.
WW: What made you want to bring the three together for this show?
JL: Historically, when I think about art and business overlapping, I think of advertising. So I turned to the era when American advertising began for inspiration, the late ’50s and early ’60s on Madison Avenue in New York, as a “medium” for that meditation.
My grandfather also happened to be an advertising manager with Procter & Gamble at the time, introducing brands like Crest, Head & Shoulders, and Ivory soap to British and South American markets in the decades following the Second World War. He would have been one of those clients on Mad Men. So the images that appear on the canvases and photographs are very much a part of my family lore and upbringing. I suppose that’s part of the reason for me. The bronzes are just totems of good work being done in the business of fine art.
The six works on canvas highlight a few “brights spots” in the early days of American advertising—the beautiful, the stylish, the iconic—those that represented the “American way,” those that articulated the “American dream” in the “American century” that followed the Second World War.
The five photographic works, by contrast, critique a few of the ways the genre was getting it wrong from the get-go—selling cigarettes like food, tapping into male chauvinism in the culture, encouraging a reckless gun culture. Bad advertising.
WW: The bronze pieces (the confidential and “@” pieces)—what do they represent?
JL: The bronzes, are reflections on principles learned in the past 15 years of my work in the fine art trade in New York and London. I wanted the works to be small enough for a desktop or shelf space, so they could be hand-held and collected as a set. Sculpture gardens are so difficult to gather; I wanted to make that process a little easier for collectors who enjoy my work.
They are what I call “tools of the trade” objects—the Carpenter’s Rule, signifying the process of finding “fits” between artists and collectors, as well as one’s duty to represent works and parties faithfully; the Between Us confidentiality stamp, representing the importance of balance and discretion in conducting the business of fine art; the Mixed Media paperweight (this is the one in the form of an “@“ symbol), representing one’s position at work between traditional media like bronze on one hand, and the digital media used to represent the trade on the other; the By Their Bellies headphones, representing music’s role in my creative process; and the Tight Rail squash ball, which is a simple reflection of a sport I play to keep myself in shape and my mind sharp. But they are each also meant to be simply fun items to hold and behold.
WW: What about the intersection of mass marketing and art fascinates you?
JL: I wouldn’t say I’m “fascinated” by mass marketing or its intersection with art, maybe “momentarily fixated” would be more accurate. I’m using mass marketing as a metaphor for exploring the overlap between creativity and commerce that takes place in markets each day, between a culture of creation that makes the work and the market mechanism that shapes those creations and injects them into the marketplace.
WW: What do you want a viewer to walk away from “Market Makers” thinking about?
JL: I don’t want them to think about anything in particular; I’m more interested in their thinking what they’re already thinking, maybe to hear them discuss that or chat with them about the work would be cool.
I suppose in the end I hope a viewer might walk away with some sense for how they play a part (if not Warhol’s “starring role”) in the evolution of the marketplaces they participate in, and that by taking an active, thoughtful role in that process, they help things improve. And just to feel energized and entertained by the work, that would be great.
Kind of a sunny, optimistic, democratic ethos, I guess. Which sets the stage for the next show.
“Market Makers” is on view through October 12.