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The art of eBay, offline at Goatsilk Gallery

The Goatsilk Gallery is difficult to find, even with an address. A few blocks down Wyoming Street off Russell, past a clutch of instant dwellings that didn’t exist a summer ago, an industrial alley appears. Past warehouse and storage space, the driver must thread a path amidst ancient tractors mossed over with rust and sundry lengths of steel from the foundry. The orange door stands out, its human scale overpowered by the hangar-like garages that flank it.

Founded a year ago by Ben Bloch and Caroline Peters, Goatsilk has pushed at expectations consistently. Its gaping space has been used for performance pieces and video installations, almost all of which explore the theme of how we perceive the world we’ve made. This is the history that gave rise to the current exhibit, eBay Art, which runs through Oct. 19.

Usually, a discussion of an exhibit would not include the context of room, building, street, city, but in this case each of these factors seems important, because Bloch and Peters have gone to considerable lengths to remind us how the art came to be, and how it came to be in front of us. The art on offer in the dozen pieces purchased online through eBay is, for the most part, tedious, but the act of displaying it is not. An art exhibit that merits only passing mention of the artworks is a new breed of art world experience, art as a metaphor for art.

Working over a period of months, Bloch and Peters selected the pieces on eBay, sifting through more than a thousand. They had decided to spend no more than $25 on any single piece, and in some cases they paid less than $5. They read artists’ statements and tried to asses from the digital rendering whether they were looking at something worthwhile. The most interesting thing about their criteria is that they sought sincerity, avoiding irony and kitsch. Nor did they want the sorts of dull, pleasing images that populate ski resort galleries or malls. They wanted the artist.

Sincerity alone, as it turns out, doesn’t do much for art. Here is a piece of driftwood, polished and adorned with an eye; a line drawing of the cathedral at Rouen; one in an endless series of self-portraits; torn strips of comic book overlaid with dots of paint; the usual watercolors. None of the pieces measures much beyond 8x11 inches, and all are upstaged by the stunning banality of eBay’s language: “This piece comes to you from a smoke free environment! I accept Paypal only! Thanks for looking!!!”

The pieces are each mounted at eye-level, give or take, with three or four sheets of eBay documentation plastered above, and the package in which the piece was delivered displayed below. What you notice at once is the collection as a whole, the detritus, the show bound by no theme other than that people make art. It does look like just a bunch of junk, forcing the viewer to ask herself what, if anything, gives it meaning.

For any text-oriented person, the mass of words, their bland cyber trifling, draws the eye. In those pages, set in chronological order, the history of the piece is revealed, or, rather, betrayed. Today we endure a pathological affection for self-disclosure, and eBay may be one of the worst enablers: “I am selling paintings on eBay because it is fun and opens my work up to a bigger audience,” writes one artist. Another goes to some length to describe his process, then writes, “This labour intensive approache [sic] allows me to create numerous details which will be appreciated by sophisticated art-lovers!”

Once postage and process are made equal, we, along with the artists, are divorced from our ability to filter and select information that is artistically important. Bloch and Peters have done the filtering for us, but how can we trust their ability to filter, knowing how numb they must have become to the point-and-click interactions?

The context of the computer figures strongly in this exhibit, and suggests that the art is actually more accessible to the lone net surfer, who can concentrate in peace. In fact, anyone can visit the exhibit at Goatsilk.com, a virtual convenience that possibly endangers the actual gallery. In person, however, the mind is allowed to wander more freely, imitating the links and wanderings of the Internet. What if Bloch and Peters, for instance, had included an online computer in the show, so the viewer could log on to the Web site, or follow other auctions, or link to other pieces by the artists on these walls?

The surprise of the show is not that random art is likely to be bad, or at least bland; it is not that a hidden jewel might emerge, nor that visual artists embrace the opportunity to use words to make themselves a little better understood. It is the sudden, dear, humble revelation of the unconstructed self revealed in those envelopes, their daily familiarity pocked by individual expression, the handwriting so intimate, and one of the first personal characteristics to be eliminated by the Internet. Online, the words and images are visible, but like a CD remastering of a Duke Ellington recording, they have been sanded down and sanitized. The tactile packaging is so alluring, then, because of the diverse humanity expressed, that tender fragile aspect of being alive, the offering of those names: Jeff Atnip, Candy Willetts, Vjeran Miljenovic, Ken Oberholtzer.

The envelopes provide yet another link, the revealed privacy of Bloch’s home address exposed, almost an invitation to make our way to his house after we’ve viewed the show. The Internet provides the safety of anonymity and the ridiculous opportunity for exposure at the same time, but the real information, the concrete knowledge of where Bloch lives, feels more importantly alive than anything else in the show.

Bloch and Peters plan to auction the entire installation on eBay sometime later in the fall. Maybe someone somewhere will start to amass a collection of eBay art installations and auction them off together in the spring.

The eBay Show is on display at Goatsilk Gallery, 1909 Wyoming Street #5, through October 19. Gallery hours are Weds. through Sunday, 2–6 p.m. Call 728-9251 for more information.

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