Show me the money
Conceptual art as accounting at University Art Gallery
“Conceptual artist” is a job title that allows for presenting pretty much any subject or process as legitimate art. Even using line drawings as a substitute for spreadsheet-based financial accounting, as demonstrated—or perhaps more accurately, illustrated—by Danica Phelps’ current exhibition, Chico’s Income’s Outcome, at the University Art Gallery.
Phelps is a fine draftswoman of pencil drawings and a meticulous—one might guess obsessive-compulsive—record keeper of her financial transactions. And she is also a brilliant analyzer and articulator of her motivations for combining these two aspects of herself that most people might not conceive of as intimately—even symbiotically—related. As Phelps explains of her project: “Each time a drawing in the series is sold, a window opens onto my life and I draw what I spent that money on. When the money is spent, the window closes. Each green stripe panel shows the income that was generated as well as a little cartoon of the drawing or drawings that were sold to generate that income. When a drawing is sold, I also make the next generation of that drawing, which then becomes part of the series.”
The drawings on display give a retrospective sample of Phelps’ work on the series, which has been ongoing since 2012, as well the economic and artistic interactions during the New York-based artist’s two-week residency as a visiting artist and lecturer at Chico State. The drawings are in graphite pencil, the lines light and seemingly loose, even sketchy, but Phelps’ skill gives the drawings a very immediate sense of movement and engagement, whether it be eating a yogurt, paying a parking meter, or putting a stamp on a letter. As she explained about her drawing style in a 2004 interview with The Believer magazine, “… the lines don’t pile up on one another and there’s not a lot of erasing. The lines are pretty directly a record of the time that I’m spending working on the drawing, and I like you to see that. I should have a better way to say it, but the line kind of records my hand moving through time and through space.”
The financial record-keeping aspect of the Income’s Outcome project is illustrated in her use of color-coded strips (red for expenditures, green for earnings) at the base of the drawings that record how much money was spent in the transaction recorded in the drawing, and how much was earned by subsequent selling of the drawing. Some pieces have gone through several generations and become layered with new financial strips as the original is traced and replaced then sold again, adding to its financial history.
In a talk she gave at the university several days before the show’s opening, Phelps discussed her depictions of the very personal minutiae of mundane transactions in her art as a way of communicating the universality of experience and finding a way for people “to feel better about their angst,” while living in a society where the money we spend “becomes the definition of who you are.”
In the hall adjoining the main gallery a series of photograph snapshots and hand-drawn map montages give a sample of another of Phelps’ series, Walking 9-5, which in scrapbook-like fashion records the artist’s extended walking tours through parts of New York and New Jersey and the chance sights and encounters that occurred during those walks. As in the Income’s Outcome pieces, the work reflects the intensity of personal record keeping that is at the heart of Phelps’ idiosyncratic artistic motivation. It’s that intensity, delivered with nearly transparent detail, and a bit of self-conscious humor, that makes Phelps’ conceptual works worth experiencing.