Somewhere in the last decade or so, between the ubiquity of social practice art, the brief du jour of relational aesthetics, assemblages and totalizing objects, to say nothing of a pandemic and a far-right turn in the United States, art has increasingly concerned itself with the revealing of systems. Be it questions and ideas around individual complicity, structural inequity or simply institutional critique, this contemporary compulsion to pull back the curtain has, if not always successfully, elucidated its political ambitions, at least given us some exciting and novel approaches to what constitutes art, exhibition making and authorship. In “Dealer’s Choice,” the deceptively simple exhibition from Mike Lopez at Material (as part of the 2021 Terrain Biennial), the artist uses the occasion as a solo show, complete with (mostly) new work, almost as a pretense to highlight the liminal space of art handlers and preparators in exhibition making.
Lopez’s works in this exhibition are a baffling, Wunderkammer-evoking collection of sculptures. Brightly colored religious iconography mingles with (figurative and literal) phallic shapes, while transparent boxed assemblages with various materials share equal space with finely crafted figurative work. The anachronistic pairings almost read as a crash course in sculptural variety, a fact only offset by the irreverence and playfulness that these works evoke. While great care and thought is clearly put into each sculpture, there is no sense of preciousness, nor a request for veneration. These are works that literally avoid being put on a pedestal, presented instead on crude pallet-like displays.
This latter point—Lopez’s seeming indifference toward the art object’s highfalutin’ character—gets to the crux of the exhibition itself. Upon my visit to the first of three iterations of “Dealer’s Choice,” (paid) art handlers (also curators, educators and artists) Maggie Wong and Isaac Vazquez were hard at work constructing a display. After an hour or so (and lunch), Wong and Vazquez took to choosing which of Lopez’s works, all laid out on the floor for the viewer to see, to put on said display. Not content to just be an exercise in subjective curating, Lopez gave his art handlers a paper fortune teller or “cootie catcher” with cryptic instructions such as “make it sing” and “highest, lowest?” to guide their decisions, an exercise in collaborative chance operations.
Shifting the focus of the art exhibition to the labor that crafts it into being isn’t a particularly new idea. Yet, in the intimate—both in scale and network—feel of a space such as Material, this move has a particular force, almost as if to say that even in smaller-scale spaces and exhibitions, systems of power could stand to be better illuminated. Such a move doesn’t dilute the overall playfulness and generous idealism of “Dealer’s Choice,” but rather, in its minor gesture of art labor recalibration, crafts and proposes a model for conditions for the occasion of art to be something truly shared, more open and without the hierarchies so often demanded through market impositions. In a note from Wong and Vazquez left for the art handlers for the show’s second iteration, a series of additional ideas for display were presented, some straightforward, some cryptic. My favorite reads simply “What else?” This is an ambiguous question that not only leaves room for art-object-display consideration, but one that guides the locus of the exhibition. What other possibilities for collaboration and working together might coalesce if we were to just simply provide such opportunities? (Chris Reeves)
“Dealer’s Choice” is on view at Material, 2025 West Belmont, through November 7.
Chris Reeves is a creative researcher and artist who received his PhD in Art History from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2021. In 2020 he co-edited his first book, “The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia” released on Soberscove Press.