As a preface to this solo exhibition, Merlin Carpenter conducted a soul-searching conversation with the gallery’s owners, John Kelsey and Emily Sundblad. (The text is available on the gallery website.) As their discussion explains, the exhibition was motivated by revenge. In 2009, Kelsey and Sundblad participated (as Reena Spaulings) in the “Pop Life” show at London’s Tate Modern, incorporating slogans from Carpenter’s paintings into their own work-which included wallpaper for the café and leggings for the gift shop-without his approval. For Carpenter, the offense was political as well as personal: since the mid-1990s, the Tate has courted corporate investment with open arms, a policy that turned many London artists, Carpenter included, against it. His past exhibitions have expressed disgust with the commercialization of art by feeding audiences anti-institutional slogans (most memorably, “Die Collector Scum”), but with “Pop Life,” these slogans were subsumed into the Reena Spaulings brand and repackaged as mega-museum decor. Rather than shrug off the debacle, however, this show places it front and center-dwelling in the “hell” of the Tate café, as Kelsey puts it in the conversation.
The main room was completely taken up by a scale model of the café at Tate Modern. The replica was strikingly accurate, if also slightly askew. Passing through dark-stained plywood doors cheekily labeled “no reentry,” one arrived in a dismally lit cafeteria space, equipped with a box for visitors’ suggestions and a photomural approximating the view of the River Thames. At the coffee bar, there was water but no espresso (the machine was unplugged) and, nearby, in a refrigerated case (also unplugged), the usual salads and snacks sat moldering at room temperature. A duplicate of the gift shop was stocked with catalogues and art magazines featuring gallery artists Bernadette Corporation and Josephine Pryde, along with books by voguish philosophers Nick Land and François Laruelle (these were props, hence not for sale); elsewhere were Tate Café posters, postcards of Carpenter’s work, pillows printed with pages from the Reena Spaulings guestbook, and the lower half of a mannequin wearing the offending leggings (adorned with expressions such as “Kunst = Kapital” and “Relax it’s only a Reena Spaulings show”).
What do these gestures add up to? Perhaps they’re simply tit for tat, as in, “You put my work in the Tate’s café, so I’ll put the Tate café in your art gallery.” But my sense is that there’s more at stake here than the revenge plot alone. By cramming the Tate’s eatery into the grimy confines of Reena Spaulings, Carpenter collapses worlds usually kept separate: the gallery and the café, but also the insular part of the art world and the accessible mega-museum. And by filling his café with high-art swag, he casts himself, and the gallery too, in the role of gift shop manager, for whom the sale of art, postcards and pillowcases are one and the same. The lesson is an old one: only in fantasy do artists escape the profit motive scot-free. New, however, is Carpenter’s insistence that the downtown/underground recognize itself in its mass-cultural other, the neoliberal museum, whose tourist-clogged cafés are like the gallery’s backside-invisible to itself without a mirror.
Photo: View of Merlin Carpenter’s exhibition “Tate Café,” 2012; at Reena Spaulings.