Santiago Montoya at Halcyon Gallery

Filed in Reviews by on November 18, 2012

Santiago Montoya: The Great Swindle

Halcyon Gallery

16 November to 4 December 2012


I should firstly explain that The Great Swindle is the title of this exhibition, not a critical comment by this reviewer. No, there was no swindle – well, certainly not a great one; perhaps a little short-changing here and there but no more than that. I should also say that I didn’t buy anything, so I am talking solely about cultural and artistic short-changing. For financial advice, please consult your broker.

Although I had not seen Montoya’s work before, there was definitely a ring of familiarity about it. To quote the Press Release: “Drawing upon political history, Montoya uses such materials as bank-notes and food coupons to create works that question our collective ideals and aspirations, reflecting upon past dreams of nations and the seeming disconnect of the realities that follow.”

This is a familiarly post-modernist and structuralist approach to signifier and signified, here attempted through an observational approach that explicitly eschews judgement on the part of the artist. The “seeming disconnect” referred to in the Press Release is arguably a classic example of Derridean différance. Unfortunately, it seemed to me that there was a further disconnect between the gallery’s (and presumably the artist’s) description of the work and what I saw on the walls.

The overt subject matter is money, currency, commercial and financial exchange; the publicity material for this exhibition makes much of the fact that some of it was made using real money – presumably partly to impress the kind of collector who lights his cigars with £50 notes. The implied subject matter, for those who are not already sufficiently impressed alone by the fact that real money was used in its making – is power relations and the impact that filthy lucre has on culture, society and world history. Unfortunately, it is in failing to communicate clear ideas in these areas – the ones where aesthetics might creep in if given the chance – where Montoya’s work is most lacking.

The problem for me with this exhibition is that not only is this kind of basic material – banknotes, coupons, symbols of state and wealth – rather too familiar (one is reminded of Lygia Pape’s flags at the Serpentine last year and Alighiero Boetti’s Mappe at Tate Modern earlier this year), and the Derridean approach rather tired and outdated in any event, but here it is also delivered with a passionless slickness which makes me distinctly uneasy. The subject of money is certainly very relevant in the aftermath of a virtual collapse in the world economy but one does not see it being addressed here with any urgent sense of social justice, or even with the kind of outrageously knowing irony that we might expect from the likes of Jeff Koons, world-famous artist and former Wall Street commodities broker.

Perhaps it is naive of me to expect this from an exhibition in a gallery in the sleek and prosperous shopping area of New Bond Street (and maybe I would have had a different view of it if it had been hung in the Whitechapel or the South London Gallery), but without that element of judgement of the crisis surrounding money which seems absent from Montoya’s work, delivered, as it is, somewhat deadpan, it just looks too much like a mere celebration of money’s power where a more circumspect and conscientious approach would seem preferable. I am worried that Montoya’s work will appeal to those who aspire to own a Damien Hirst or a Warhol for arriviste cachet rather than for its intrinsic artistic worth (who could possibly want a Warhol for its artistic worth?) but presumably they will be more interested in whether it is “investment grade” than in its aesthetic value and I leave that judgement to others. In the short term, the interest of such “collectors” may be good for the financial interests of the artist and the gallery, but it is not necessarily the best first step to artistic immortality.

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John Kavanagh

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John Francis Kavanagh is the founder and editor of Artists Insight.

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