For over 15 years, the Philadelphia multi-hyphenate artist Andrew Jeffrey Wright has been taking photos of his money. At first, it was more of a performative project, influenced by the wide array of pictures of money he would come across working as a photo developer in college (some from potentially illegal sources, others more benign, like from children’s birthday parties), but when the artist’s bank account was seized due to unpaid student loans, the project took on another level of significance. The photos “became a diary slash documentation slash art project,” Jeffrey Wright told me over the phone last week. “Each photograph is all the money I had in the world, because I didn’t have a bank account.” These pictures comprise the entirety of “Andrew Jeffrey Wright’s Money,” up now until September 4 at the The Hole on the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
The photos have a snapshot quality that would render them mysterious out of context. In some of the pictures, the cash is accompanied by props, like stuffed E.T. toys or Beanie Babies. Some feature dogs or cats or Wright himself, posing in a mask or pumping iron. Some have the bills spelling out words (“MONEY”) or arrayed into images (stick figures, a smile). The photos do the trick of earnestly mirroring the found aesthetics Jeffrey Wright was initially inspired by. They also serve as a proof of income. “As an artist just trying to live off my art, if I got a big paycheck, I definitely wanted to document it and be like, Oh, I made some money, and this money, if I actually pay back everything I owe right now, this money is gone in three seconds,” Jeffrey Wright said. “So, it’s almost like I’m taking a picture with the money to prove to myself that I once had it, otherwise I would forget.”
In that sense, Jeffrey Wright’s photos document the unsteady life of the artist freelancer. They should strike a chord with anyone who has ever tried to eek out a living through a series of gigs and creative odd jobs that hopefully add up to the monthly rent. Similar tongue-in-cheek looks at cash-flow issues have been a recurring theme in the artist’s work for quite some time. A classic Jeffrey Wright button riffs on a famous Notorious B.I.G. song, reading, “Mo Money, Less Problems.”
Wright is one of the founders of the influential Philly collective Space 1026. His output is prolific and spans traditions and media. He does zines, clothing, art shows, comedy, abstract art, photography, and beyond, all with a trademark sense of humor that is part Dada and part Spencer’s Gifts. He does a yearly screen-printed calendar called “Labs With Abs” centered around drawings of really ripped dogs and was at one point a dancer for MC Paul Barman. A personal favorite is his photo blog “That’s Not a Trash Can. Now It Is!,” which is pretty much what you might expect but is somehow even better than that.
Jeffrey Wright’s peer group reads like a laundry list of almost two decades of influential countercultural artists: Forcefield, Barry McGee, Jayson Musson, Paper Rad, and Claire Rojas, among many others. Although a certain kind of gallery prominence has so far eluded the artist, he retains legendary status as a hero of the underground. Let’s just say the word “artist’s artist” has been used more than a few times.
“I’ve been told it over and over again by curators and other artists,” he said. “And I guess it’s a compliment, but at the same time I guess it’s also an accidental diss in a sense that, ‘Oh yeah you’re not going to make money ever because only other artists understand you. The general public doesn’t understand what you’re doing. It’s a weird way of saying, Welcome to the struggle forever.”
Although the artist told me he usually never gets nervous before art shows, something about the personal nature of “Andrew Jeffrey Wright’s Money”—which is accompanied by a catalog and will also manifest itself in extended book form this fall thanks to the publisher Delema—was different. “The nervousness came from, it’s a diary also, you know, it’s not just a bunch of pictures of money set up in interesting and intriguing ways,” Jeffrey Wright said. “It’s also straight up a diary of my finances, a diary of my life.”