“sump∙tu∙ar∙y adj. 2b. Regulating personal behavior on moral or religious grounds”
(American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition)
Consider yourself warned: Confession is good for the soul, and I was brought up as a good Catholic — which means that today I am no sort of Catholic at all. So: I consider many of the artists I discuss in this article to be friends, I have spent time at their homes and in their company, and I own art made by several of them.
Now you can also consider yourself in possession of full disclosure. More or less.
Maggie Ginestra and Michael Stasny launched Sumptuary, their month-long series of artist-driven events (March 20–April 21, 2014) that just ended at MINT Gallery, with a Marcia Vaitsman installation called Park #1. That work, lit in salmon tones, hung from the gallery rafters and had inflatable seating along the baseboards. Its evocations of re/birth and recovery made the installation as much about bringing something into being as it was about play. Vaitsman is quoted in Sumptuary’s online calendar entry on the work: “In the unpredictability of playing and experimenting, there is always the mathematical thought anchoring it to reality.”
My reality was that at a certain stage of covering Sumptuary I found myself unable to write about it. And I tried. I was having a good time at Ginestra and Stasny’s events, but the whole arrangement they had at MINT, whereby they accepted donations in return for snacks and beverages, seemed poised to attract the attention of authorities who police such matters. Would my article, rather than pulling in people who might otherwise never attend an event at an art gallery, provide the information that got this event’s organizers pulled in — to jail? Also, when Ginestra was active with WonderRoot, I took part in the organization’s 2012 artist-only auction called The Imaginary Million, from which I carried home a work made by (fuller disclosure) Stasny. And arts reviewers aren’t supposed to write about artists whose work they own, as doing so constitutes a conflict of interest. What to do? I phoned my editor.
I also spoke to Ginestra and others about my quandary. In one of her responses she characterized Stasny as “innocent,” and she noted that he had been insistent about being the last installation artist to present during Sumptuary. The suggestion troubled her initially. She and Stasny are partners in life as well as in art. And curators — that term best labels the couple’s role in regard to other artists who contributed to Sumptuary, though the two of them did everything — aren’t supposed to curate their own work into a show, as doing so constitutes a conflict of interest. What to do?
Stasny ended up being the last installation artist to present during Sumptuary; his menagerie of creatures assembled from recycled wood, some with parabolic lamps for heads, resembled the offspring of Luxo Jr. and a Louise Nevelson sculpture. My editor offered a vote of confidence in my willingness to engage the ethics of any coverage I write, and she solved the other problem by pointing out that this article could not possibly run before Sumptuary ended.
The irony in all our soul-searching over the disposition of artworks in their space or in mine is that – despite its four weeks of desultory installations and nonstop videos, of artists and critics drafted as DJs, of brunches and dances (including an exquisite, Eastern-tinged turn by Helen Hale), of Joey Orr researching questions left for him on the premises but burning his results instead of sharing them — Sumptuary was arguably about something less tangible than the things shown at MINT, or even the performances presented there. The overarching work conjured by this series was the haphazard community it created in the space and beyond it.
Circling back to Vaitsman’s quote — the only one of its kind incorporated into that list of descriptions — I note that the word experimenting trails closely behind playing. Sumptuary was an experiment in social practice as art. Asked about how each of them defines social practice in such a context, Stasny mentioned “dialogue, economics, and . . . unintimidating ‘fun.’” Ginestra responded more abstractly: “This enforcement of such a precarious boundary,” she wrote, seemingly in reference to the term art practice, and perhaps latching on to some gulf between being and doing but also implying ones between art and audience — or artist and journalist. She concluded that “the enforcement of the boundary serves to dissolve said boundary through contact.” I was too distracted by Sumptuary’s fascinating economic experiment — which split donations daily through formulae based on varied percentages and on which artists’ work was present that day — to notice that I had been roped into the proceedings. After all, the ethical system I chose once Catholicism ceased to be personally viable was journalism, for which one ideally maintains distance from one’s stories. Unless the story one is covering intentionally vaporizes that idealized distance, I mean.