Minneapolis-based artist and curator Natasha Pestich’s exhibition at Martha Street Studio presents a retrospective collection of screen-printed posters advertising past exhibits by the artist Jan Xylander. Pestich’s statements about Xylander describe a “painter and performance artist deeply influenced by time spent in the northern Minnesota wilderness.”
The catch: Jan Xylander never existed. Pestich creates work based on fictional people and events, presenting them as real. Her commitment to the joke is such that a viewer could wander into the gallery with no prior knowledge and easily assume that Xylander is a genuine artist. Her exhibit on “Xylander” is a hilarious conceptual exercise in lampoonery, satirizing the insular and self-serious world that creates and exhibits art.
Pestich makes clear that the posters on display aren’t by Xylander himself, but “multiple artists.” The viewer is left playing a bit of artistic detective, trying to discern who Xylander is as an artist and a person through second- or third-hand fragments. The deeper one digs, the realer it seems, and the realer it seems, the sillier it gets.
First, there’s the attention to detail. Dating from roughly 2000 to 2010, Xylander’s shows have pompous titles like The Casual Pilgrim and Egging the Monument and are held at venues with names like “Marcus Aurelius Gallery.”
One poster, for a show entitled The Delicate Art of Parking, shows the artist playing Twister with some houseplants. It recalls those fake album covers from This is Spinal Tap for records we never hear, leaving the audience to imagine what Intravenus de Milo or Shark Sandwich actually sounds like.
Then there’s Xylander himself. There are enough gaps for any viewer to intuit their own version of Xylander, but what is clear is that he’s clearly someone calculating a particular self-image. He wears a hunter’s cap as an affectation and, based on the posters, seems primarily to paint rabbits. This clashes with the fact that he mainly sells his work on eBay, an incongruity which he tries to spin as a “conversation” between nature and technology.
Finally, there’s the absurd self-importance of the exhibit itself. Pestich’s curator statement claims the posters have made “a direct and lasting impact on the production of gallery advertisements” and contrasts their “handmade” quality with “the mass produced commercial printing techniques” of today. It’s a ludicrous claim to make about posters printed as recently as 2010 (in reality, the posters are actually screen and digital prints by Pestich herself).
The relative recentness of the posters, and the shortness of Xylander’s “career,” highlight this further; one of the shows is titled Expedition: The Early Works of Jan Xylander. The “earliest” possible work in such a show could be, at most, a decade old.
It calls into hilarious question the whole idea of a bunch of old posters on a wall as something “curated,” or how far backwards a gallery will bend to justify an exhibition that’s about a dozen layers of the onion away from any actual art.