Do people ever use "opportunist" as a compliment? Like, "She's really just so great at unabashedly playing the system"?
It's certainly not being used that way right now, in contentious conversations about what's up with the art market. The art market is a little crazy right now, but maybe you hadn't heard, since it affects so few of us day-to-day.
Paintings, mostly by young men born in the mid-1980s or a little earlier, are breaking records at auction. This past March, at Phillips' "Under the Influence" auction, which sells work by a lot of younger-ish contemporary artists, a made-to-look-pixelated painting by L.A.- and New York–based Parker Ito, who's 28, went for $62,500, even though it was estimated at no more than $15,000. But that's chump change compared to the $1 million recently paid for a backdrop painted by Alex Israel on the Warner Bros. lot.
Ito and Israel are among the artists Village Voice critic Christian Viveros-Faune referred to as "The Opportunists" in a recent review of work by also young, also hot-on-the-market Lucien Smith. Viveros-Faune described the work as resembling Kelly Clarkson covers: "celebrations of existing material that remain, cynically, one candid step removed from a copy."
L.A.-based consultant-collector Stefan Simchowitz buys and helps others to buy work by the Opportunists, although he doesn't call them that. Someone he does call an opportunist is Carlos Rivera, the guy who started SellYouLater, now known as ArtRank, which plots artists' career trajectories and probable market value, and has taken information from places such as Instagram, tracking photos of new art posted by collectors such as L.A.-based Dean Valentine, Helsinki-based Anita Zabludowicz and Simchowitz. New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz calls Simchowitz "an opportunistic speculator" for selling paintings too fast.
So opportunists abound, and the question, for those of us who look at art but don't really plan to buy paintings at auction, is whether and why we should care.
Amsterdam-based artist Jonas Lund is trying, openly, to get opportunism just right in "Flip City," his new show at Steve Turner Contemporary, right across from LACMA. The paintings he's showing were made specifically to succeed in this current market, and made quickly. He started working out the idea just two months ago, in April, when he first met Steve Turner and began talking about doing a show with him.
Lund has done projects before about how the art world works, as when he built a website to analyze how well art on display in galleries held viewers's attention. In designated areas, he used a wireless network and software he developed to track any WiFi-enabled device an art viewer might have on his or her person.
This time, he approached his project by looking through Phillips auction catalogs and seeing which work was being flipped — made, sold and then resold multiple times in relatively short order. Then he built algorithms to help him make 40 perfectly flippable paintings. One such algorithm, he explained via email, was, "Select all paintings that have been made no earlier than 2012, with an increase from estimate to hammer price above 200 percent and that has been sold more than twice in the last two years from artists that are below 30." ("Estimate" is the price that an auction house estimates the piece will get, while "hammer price" refers to the actual amount the painting fetches at auction.)
From those paintings he selected, using this algorithm or another, he would then borrow marks and strategies — like a swoosh from one of artist Dan Rees' streamlined abstractions or a splatter from a Lucien Smith piece — incorporating them into these digital files he would work on in airports or on planes, jetsetter style. He had the files printed onto canvas soon after he arrived in L.A., choosing the 50-by-40-inch size shown by market research to be sellable. And he had the canvases stretched by professionals so all he had to do, production-wise, was go into Steve Turner's upstairs office and apply a little acrylic gel to the canvases in spots — you know, adding texture and giving the work a hands-on feel.
Two days after the show opened, just a few hours after Lund headed back to Amsterdam, there were still paintings leaning up against the office walls, waiting to be dry enough to join the others in the gallery. Most of them were placed in the all-white storage unit against the far wall. Interested viewers can pull them out and look, or maybe, with the help of a gallery director or assistant, switch them with the ones on the wall.
A black GPS tracking device has been tied to the stretcher bars on the back of each painting, and a SIM card inside each device sends text messages to Lund on a daily basis. He'll track this info on a regularly updated site, flip-city.net. If any of the paintings are resold, anyone can find out by visiting the site, and the old owner is required, based on terms agreed upon, to ensure the new owner keeps the GPS device installed.
Some of the flippable paintings, especially the denser ones with overlapping, cartoonish marks, are more interesting than others. But they all more or less look like what they are: strategically produced, one-of-a-kind only in fact. Some of them have already sold, and the gallery plans to feature them at artBO in Bogotá and the next Untitled fair in Miami Beach, which suggests that, so far, the project is working out.
A few months ago, just before Saltz wrote his takedown of the "greatest art-flipper of them all," Simchowitz told ArtSpace.com that flipping paintings had to do with "flipping the order of things," meaning that the market and gallery world need to be less uptight, more open to viral trends in the way industries such as tech are.
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Along with Kelly Clarkson covers, Christian Viveros-Faune used virality as a metaphor in his Lucien Smith review. These are paintings just reminiscent enough of Andy Warhol, just smooth enough to look undisruptively cool hanging behind models in fashion shoots. They can be bought into, favorited repeatedly. If you're aiming for popularity, you just can't take that many risks.
In 1943, when Peggy Guggenheim paid Jackson Pollock to paint a mural in the hallway of her townhouse, she was giving resources to an artist whose riskiness few others were ready to embrace. In 1972, collector Giuseppe Panza purchased Zero Mass, a barely lit room covered in paper and sand, made by Eric Orr. It was supposed to make you feel outside of weight and space. That's the dream: that whoever has money to speculate will put it toward someone trying to see the world in a different way, that art could be this wide-open realm of possibility that somehow defies the rules of the commercial world but still has financial support.
The flip phenomenon, and even a project such as Lund's, which stands slightly outside of it, half participating in what it's commenting on, make the dream that risk-taking could be well-funded today seem even further away.
JONAS LUND: FLIP CITY | Steve Turner Contemporary, 6026 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-City | Through July 3 | steveturnercontemporary.com