Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran a profile of artist Shea Hembrey that centered around the young Arkansan’s fake biennial project Seek which also carries an implicit critique of the art world within it. Hembrey was inspired on a trip to Europe:
He went to the sprawling contemporary art show Documenta and the Münster Sculpture Project, both in Germany, as well as to the Venice Biennale. In Switzerland, he saw Art Basel, a vast fair that draws influential gallerists and deep-pocketed buyers. His primary response to what he saw — what was billed as the most exciting and valued art being made in the world — was disappointment. “I wanted to love the art I’d seen,” he says now. “But so much of it just felt indulgent.”
He describes what struck him — especially at Documenta, a roughly $20 million undertaking held every five years in Kassel — as poorly constructed, deliberately controversial work, paired with artist statements that threw around fuzzy, self-important words like “diaspora” and “postmodern.” It felt, he says, “like a big charade.”
Critical opinion is mixed over the artist who is sponsored by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love:
The Seek biennial may well be viewed as a stunt, as a bid for attention from someone who has yet to catch the eye of the industry’s kingmakers — an attempt to build, with a biennial, the very palace he hopes to enter. “It’s outsider art done with insider information,” says the critic Dave Hickey, who has seen the biennial catalog and says he is not much impressed with the quality of the art, labeling it “naïve postmodern” and overly self-conscious. The writer and curator Lawrence Weschler is more smitten, calling Hembrey’s biennial “delightful and delighting” and also “Socratic.” “It’s got a wonderful whiff of fraudulence,” he says. “You look at it and say: ‘Is this real? Is it not real? Is he making fun of me? ’ ”
And, of course, the artist himself gets caught in the cross currents of popular perceptions about the art market:
In March, Hembrey spoke at the TED conference in California, spinning a few charming Arkansas stories and then clicking through slides of his imaginary artists’ work. He was given a standing ovation, though later caught flak from commenters on the TED Web site for advocating for a more-accessible art world while putting a $1,000 price tag on the hardcover limited-edition copies of his catalog. (In an online debate that grew heated, several commenters defended Hembrey’s price point: “Attend a Sotheby’s auction and see how many works of art you can purchase for a thousand dollars,” one wrote. “In fact, drop by any gallery and see what you can purchase for a thousand dollars.”) Hembrey declines to say how many copies have sold, but the debate over price illuminates a larger tension between art and the marketplace. He continues to fret over wanting the collection to be seen and not thought of as exclusive, but also wishing for it to be taken seriously and beyond that, needing to make a living.