Through May 29th, 2011 El Museo del Bario visitors can leave with a signed art print from the retrospective show of world-renowned artist Luis Camnitzer for just twenty-five cents. In the center of the main exhibition space is Camnitzer’s 1996 work Autoservicio. The piece consists of several stacks of standard office paper proclaiming various slogans and statements written in Spanish. Each stack of paper is comprised of identical pages printed with the slogan. A label near each stack offers the English translation. One telling example is Mirar Sin Pagar es Robo, or Looking Without Paying is Theft. On one end of the podium is a pad of ink and a rubber stamp of Camnitzer’s signature. There is also a slot cut in to the podium and a sign asking the viewer for twenty-five cents. The piece relinquishes all control of the artist to the audience participant who is free to select which slogan he or she will buy, and then is free to “sign” the paper wherever he deems fit and how ever many times she chooses. Of course, viewers are not forced to pay, or to select only one print, but the ever-present museum staff give an approving nod or a curt “thank you” when someone participates in the work honestly. Although Autoservicio raises questions about commodification and homogeny, each page remains unique because every participant contributes nuanced variation during its constant modification. The selection process, the pressure applied to the ink pad and paper, how much is paid and how often, what happens to the page after it is removed from the podium, and an innumerable amount of other, slightly different, interactions and combinations of actions constantly alter the work.
Autoservicio is just one of the many complex pieces from the German-born, Uruguayan-raised artist included in the show. However, it is an excellent representation of his work as a whole because it is an engaging, heavily conceptual, print-sculpture hybrid. While heralded as a conceptual artist, Camnitzer almost exclusively uses printmaking and sculpture to create his works. Both methods of art making are often thought of as complimentary disciplines because they frequently share materials (such as metal, wood, paper, and plastic), they offer artists the ability to make multiple copies of an original work, and they are both frequently used in commercial and corporate art, fine or “high” art, crafts, and decorative arts. It is no surprise then that Camnitzer prefers these modes of art make making. His oeuvre almost exclusively comments on, critiques, explores, and deconstructs the art world’s pretensions and politics, the relationship of the artist to the viewer and/or the gallery, and various other contentious encounters. Camnitzer craftsmanship is as notable as his concept and often the two are inextricably linked. His clean, bold aesthetic choices (such as blank backgrounds, strong lines, neutral tones as well as black and white, the scale of each work) and his choice of wording work together to create bold and simple statements that suggest an ocean of subtext. The extent to which his the meanings in his pieces are accessible varies greatly from the seemingly obvious Mirar Sin Pagar es Robo to the more clouded The Instrument and its tool from 1976. The instrument and its tool is part of a series of small framed objects from small tools, blobs of paint, a tiny bottle of collected eraser shavings, and in this case, a pencil. In The instrument and its tool, the pencil’s graphite center appears to be extracted, or stretched out from its casing like a piece of unraveling thread or a single strand of spaghetti. Toward the bottom of the frame it breaches the frame’s glass and leads the viewer’s eye to a brass plate with the engraved words “EL INSTRUMENTO Y SU OBRA” (the title of the piece in Spanish). The objects presented (the frame, pencil, and name plate) are banal and accessible, but the way they are modified and the words assigned to them instantly render them foreign and perplexing. The audience is left to wonder whether the wood of the pencil, the graphite, or the text are the instrument and tool in question. The life-like to small scale of both Autoservicio and The instrument and its tool offer the viewer a safe intimate environment in which to consider the works while the meaning is alienating. This slippage of meaning is typical of Camnitzer’s work and serves to engage his viewer beyond a cursory glance.
Camnitzer currently lives in New York City. Since the mid 1960’s he has been exhibiting work around the world. Notably, he has had representation in New York, Los Angeles, Cuba, Zürich, Sweden, and Brazil. Camnitzer is also featured in the permanent collections of several prestigious New York museums, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Additionally, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, and the Museu de Arte Contemporanea in Sao Paulo own a number of his works. During his career Camnitzer has received numerous awards, fellowships, and accolades including two Guggenheim Fellowships (1961, printmaking and 1991, visual arts) and numerous purchase prizes. Camnitzer has studied in Uruguay and Münich, and has taught at the State University of New York since 1969.