David DiMichele: Inside The White Box
Written by Constance Mallinson
Since 2000 artist David DiMichele has been photographing his miniature installations in a 4’X8’ facsimile of an art gallery/museum he constructed in his garage studio exclusively for the purposes of the finished photographs. He shares in a long tradition of miniaturization that has often employed irony, humor, and spatial shifts to comment on cultural and societal mores as well as used the technique to intentionally deceive. Hollywood’s history of using small scale sets and models for budget busting dramatic scenes—think storms at sea with violent wave tossed ships filmed in large water tanks or skyscrapers toppling in earthquakes— and the architectural fantasies of Los Angeles artist Michael McMillan’s all participate in this artful form of representation. He also clearly shares the aims of photographers such as James Casebere and David Levanthal.who in the 1980’s and 90’s made tiny dioramas and tableaus which when photographed, appeared deceptively actual sized. Via an overt theatricality and artifice, these artists engaged questions about the veracity of photographs and centered on questions surrounding the experience of reality and art through reproduction and mediation—now made even more prescient during the pandemic when the digital experience dominates life.
DiMichele’s “Pseudo Documentations” consisted of large scale photographs of his multiple miniature installations that wittily mimicked the heft and lavish ambitions of museum sized galleries full of Tony Smiths, Mark DiSuveros, Robert Smithsons and Robert Grosvenors. Careful lighting, windows opening to landscapes and human scaled figurines in the cavernous interiors lend great credibility to the monumentality of the installations. All manner of earthworks, material accretions, even 3D versions of Ab-Ex painting flow and loop in and out of the “galleries” recalling the Minimalist and post Minimalist masters whose room and genre expanding artworks changed the nature of art experience in the 20th century and into the present. Beyond parody however, DiMichele’s illusionistic works pay homage to the capacious imaginations of these artists but as artworks in their own right, they also offer a weighty critique of contemporary art display and the rapid morphing of the viewing and appreciation of art into the digital realm. The recent shut-downs have brought these interrogations into sharper focus as galleries close(many permanently) and offer on-line viewing.
Partly as a response to the contraction of viable art spaces and the skewed economics of the art world, DiMichele has extended his personal studio practice by now calling his diminutive space the I-Beam Gallery and opening it to nationally curated exhibitions in what he terms “an experimental laboratory”. The inaugural exhibition entitled “Post-Process/Post Materials” was an invitational sculpture show including small scale sculpture by Gerald Giamportone, David McDonald, Carolie Parker, and DiMichele. It was followed by the current show, “Prevailing Sensations- Current Abstract Painting from Los Angeles and Beyond” and featured painters Robert Kingston, Linda King, Scott Reeds, and Tom McGlynn who are represented by digital images of their paintings. DiMichele’s press releases promotes the exhibitions with the same seriousness as any gallery exhibition. The primary viewing venue is Instagram where its rapid accession of images and the heavy use of social media by artists, on- line venues, and galleries enforces the illusion that the artworks are shown in a legitimate contemporary institution or commercial space.
DiMichele’s proto gallery actually performs as a sculptural artwork itself that, like many miniature artworks, uses scale to elicit reflection. Here it is a vessel for containing actual and replicated artworks, a type of collage that simultaneously adheres to, subverts but also validates the requisite conditions and power structures that shape our appreciation of contemporary art. On the subversive end, his project embraces a “Small is Beautiful” ethic that advocates against globalism entailing carbon heavy consumption, against the “bigger is better” artwork and art fairs. Its emphasis on conceptual/virtual artworks is also an attempt to bypass entrenched business practices in order to serve artists’ unique economic interests. Equally critical, DiMichele calls attention to the unwritten laws that establish and authenticate art’s relevance. Much of the credibility of the project, of course, is dependent on the suspension of disbelief via the mode of presentation, i.e. his mimicry of the clean, white, immense, well lit space and all it has come to signify. Such venues are absolutely required for the exhibition of innovative artworks and its discourse.
The “white cube” was brilliantly analyzed by Thomas McEvilley and Brian O’Doherty in a series of essays from the 1970’s compiled in the publication Inside the White Cube. The authors laid out the rigorous specifics of the pristine contemporary gallery so necessary for the framing, governing, and promotion of modern and twentieth century art. A “unique chamber of aesthetics”, the gallery is a a ritualized, magical, unchanging space….”where the effects of change are deliberately disguised and hidden…it is an attempt to cast an appearance of eternality over the status quo in terms of…artistic values.” A never changing group of subscribers shares the sensibility and promotes these ideologies and the endurance of certain power structures. O’Doherty writes, “Things become art in a space where powerful ideas about art focus on them.” The ideal gallery or museum space is designed to mediate the art and confer status on the art object. It completely dictates the terms of success while falsely espousing the fiction of meritocracy of talent all in the service of creating wealth. Controlling who and what gets seen has been made more acute and unchallenged by the extreme market mentality driving the display of today’s art. If artists want viable careers, they have to find alternative or unconventional sites for their work or sign onto the onerous system and all it entails. With so many artists vying for exhibitions, opportunities seem scarce and much worthwhile art goes unseen.
In effect, DiMichele games this system. In his gallery lesser known artists can have access to the same cachet as celebrated ones and are able to visualize similar ambitions for their work. The use of the Internet is essential for this type of disruption with its totalizing effects and instantaneous consumption. Hierarchies can begin to crumble. Once contextualized as such, viewers could fail to discriminate between an exhibition at a bricks and mortar space and DiMichele’s version and theoretically rate the art on equal terms. To illustrate, I recently had the experience of painting a self portrait on an Art in America cover then posting it on Instagram while clearly stating it was a painting on a magazine cover. I received many congratulations for finally “making it” with a feature story about me in a major art magazine. Since most digital images read without any real evidence of their facture, all is believable.
Of course there are obvious drawbacks to art viewed exclusively in digital formats. Artists make a bit of a Faustian bargain here. DiMichele’s I-Beam project is not so much a rejection of the entrenched system but in some respects a perpetuation of it with part of its ethic to help artists gain visibility. It’s important to note that artists never had a problem having their work represented in glossy art magazines. The ostensible goal was to have viewers schedule in person encounters with the art. While knowing the site involves subterfuge, artists still seem to want the rewards of the system. Moreover, the I-Beam exhibitions are currently somewhat exclusive. An artist still has to know someone who knows someone, etc. to be seen in the space. Then there are the obvious drawbacks to reducing paintings and sculptures and all the attendant pleasures associated with physical presence and auras to flat screen images. Painter Linda King who participated in the abstraction show summarized some of the conflicting issues with this type of presentation:
“The experience of showing in person/real time is that the experience is much more visceral. I think the connection to the art is very different. As an artist I would prefer to have people experience that in person. With that said, I have reached a much wider audience by posting my work online. This has not yet developed into sales but has given me a much larger art community and many interesting discussions and comments. Although I have exhibited in and been represented by a number of galleries I no longer have those connections. I am unsure how the future of galleries will play out after Covid. I think that artists will need to come up with new ways to get their work out to be seen and can’t rely solely on galleries and museums to do that. Social media has given me access to artists all over the world and enabled me to have interesting conversations about art. I am able to attend exhibitions and lectures almost anywhere. I have people in Italy, Japan, Germany etc. following my work. What does this really mean? I have no idea but I think expanding accessibility is a good idea.”
With the appreciation/reception of art more habitually dependent on the computer we are entering a turning point in how we absorb art. DiMichele’s project is directed at the evolving nature of the perception of the art object in a playing field beset by financial, logistical, environmental, technological, social and cultural restraints Similarly disruptive, Brent Hayes Edwards’ group of Black collagists on Instagram juxtapose figures in time and space as correctives to history’s omissions. Such undertakings have the potential for transforming a system rife with inequities. Or we have the possibility of becoming Jean Baudrillard’s hellish simulated world where lived experience and image merge into an unknowable and unmanageable near schizophrenic state with no discernible boundaries between self and one’s environment, or between reality and fiction. Whatever the outcomes, the dissolution of restrictive boundaries surrounding the presentation of art will once again change the course of empires.