The giant vase of white lilies sitting on a hardwood table under a window of golden velvet curtains impressed upon me a feeling that David Roberts Art Foundation was an institution both welcoming in its homey warmth and intimidating in its luxury. This soft architecture, however, is part of the framing of its current exhibition. It extends the exhibition’s content to the staging of a particular kind of institutional address or atmosphere. I almost missed the counterpoint to the golden curtains in ‘I don’t work on Sundays’, Oscar Murillo’s black canvas tarps hanging a few feet away on the adjacent wall, perhaps representing the black flags of Black Liberation or anarchism. A strange dialogue is set up between private luxury and the kind of bleak labour conditions at work in Murillo’s rough and hand-stitched canvases. It is hard to tell whether the juxtaposition of gold velvet and black canvas shows the coexistence of the exploited global south (often the subject of Murillo’s work) and the wealthy beneficiaries of the art world or is a critical commentary upon them. I continue, however, past a fireplace and meander through the long stretch of room-upon-room that comprise the main gallery.
On a gold-gilded wall is a small pastel-palette painting characteristic of Etel Adnan’s mountain landscapes. It is lit by industrial lamps with no fixtures, simply sitting on the bare floor. Ida Applebroog’s paintings from her ‘Window Pieces’ series are hung on chain-link fence partitions that segue throughout the long space. As I read the painting’s label and place of origin I remember something an art theorist said about fetishising the backside of paintings because no one usually gets to see them. At this point, a level of institutional critique comes into play, soon verified by walking up to Philip Guston’s painting ‘Drive’ (1969) hung on a wall of dark floral wallpaper. These two actions - one of showing the (profane) origins of a work of art outside the white cube and the other imagining a painting in your living room - are debasements of the Kantian model of disinterestedness or aura-giving autonomy within contemporary exhibition practice. My reading is further confirmed by the text on the front of the exhibition literature which asks, “Who are the authors of a museum or of a fiction? … Every museum is a fiction.”
If decisions have been made to dismantle the fiction of a museum as a magical place detached from the world of everyday circulation and labour, another fiction is simultaneously woven throughout the show. While most of the works are revealed in all of their pre-exhibition circumstances such as storage records, condition notes, artist bios and material fabrications, there are ‘ghost’ or mystery artworks whose origins remain opaque. Nothing is known about several concrete objects that obfuscate some pathways and ooze out of walls like blobs and tongues. As most ghosts are transparent, however, it is paradoxically the transparency of the rest of the exhibition that makes this ghost seem defined by its opacity - materially as concrete and conceptually as anonymous. The oddity of not revealing an artist when we are so used to attaching individuals to artworks in our desire economies, points to another type of fiction, or myth - the myth of the singular, talented and biographically fascinating individual artist behind every work of art.
It occurs to me that this ghost in the room lords over the autonomy of the other artists in the exhibition. The latter seem employed to illustrate a narrative about themselves as fictions or constructions. Perhaps it is unfair to focus predominantly on the conditions of the work and museum display while the artist’s original intentions recede to the background. In the end the wobble between the ghost who comes to reveal the conditions of the broader world of art circulation and the ghosts of original contents and intentions, is a productive one. As a viewer you move between surface seductions and the considerations of a work’s circulation and its life as an object outside the gallery - between the local and the global. Holding up a bare searchlight to view a sculpted surface cast in brass by Hans Josephsohn on a hardwood plinth inside a concrete building that once housed a factory, you create your own fiction of this thing called a museum collection. And perhaps in this day, the ghosts and fictions that haunt museums have as much right to see the light of day as the usual suspects.