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Detour

In 1878, some philistine asked James McNeill Whistler if he demanded 200 guineas (about five times an average factory worker's annual wages) for the two days work he'd invested in a particular painting. "No," answered Whistler. "I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime." It must be remembered, of course, that the man was an elitist fop, and likely unbothered by the thought of the average Joe's inability to afford his art.

Today, Chicago artist and British transplant Patrick Welch is looking for another way to make fine art both available and affordable to more people through his new art movement: Micromentalism. This Friday and Saturday, Welch and 12 other artists will present their work at the Fifty50 Gallery and Butcher Shop/Dogmatic Galleries. Chiefly known for his very wee "Hate paintings" — lilliputian renditions of charmingly British terms of opprobrium like "ponse," "wengoid," and "pratt" — Welch has made no small plans for Micromentalism, a spanking new art movement whose manifesto casts a microscopic eye on the fine arts.

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"I wanted artists who did small, potentially affordable, accessible work that was still challenging. That was my main criteria," said Welch in an interview. "I think I succeeded with this particular group."

The group includes names like Bill Drummond — best known as half of the band KLF, who burned a million pounds sterling in an artistic statement in 1994 — who is selling off slivers of a Richard Long photograph sliced into 20,000 pieces; blindingly rapid artist Steve Keene, who creates dozens of works simultaneously in an assembly-line explosion of paint; and Eric Doeringer, who produces art "bootlegs," miniaturized copies of the work of 100 contemporary artists that he sells at an outdoor stand in Manhattan. Doeringer was Welch's first Micromentalist recruit, the two meeting outside the Art LA art fair during Welch's smoke breaks.

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"The great thing about [Doeringer] is, he's like a street vendor. He's like the guy selling watches on Chicago Avenue," says Welch.

Before joining the movement, Doeringer asked to see the Manifesto first, a delightful read containing the expected Marxist fist-pumping about creating art for the average working class stiff in the street, who ordinarily would only enter an art gallery to use the bathroom. Sincerity drips, however, from such statements as "The people who attend our shows should be able to afford our art" and "Art pricing should be scaled to the wealth of the buyer."

This last bit of creative capitalism is what makes Micromentalism different from other movements. Pricing follows a sliding scale according to the purchaser's income. Part of the inspiration came from Welch's job as an instructor at the Illinois Institute of Art, where he works in the animation department. Welch sympathized with his students, who came to his shows and were excited by his art, but were financially prevented from actually owning any of it owing to all the attendant costs of showing in a gallery or museum. Micromentalism tries to level the playing field. As Welch explains it: "An hour of the artist's time equals an hour of yours. If you work at McDonald's, a Steve Keene painting will set you back $6.50. If you're a corporate lawyer, the same painting will be $100." Attendees of the first Micromentalist shows can expect to leave as fine art owners, and without the financial tears.

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The name Micromentalism was a coinage that amused Welch with its multiple meanings, though he first intended it as a counterpoint to the monumental financial baggage and ponderous pretentiousness of modern art. "Micromental... It's not an accurate opposite of 'monumental.' But somehow micromental sounds like the opposite of monumental to me," he posits.

"I also like the idea that you can say, 'Oh these guys must have small minds,' because micromentalist sounds like we've got small brains. I'm sure that the fine art establishment would think we do have very small brains for selling art by the hour, and letting people buy art for a few bucks. But I don't think that means we have small brains — it means we have big hearts."

Friday February 23, 2007
6-10 p.m.
Fifty50 Gallery, 1017 W. Lake St.
Show runs through March 31, 2007

Saturday February 24, 2007
6-10 p.m.
Butcher Shop / Dogmatic, 1319 W. Lake St., 3rd Fl.

About the Author(s)

Dan Kelly is a product of southwest suburban charm and deportment schools and 10-minute oil change shops. A 17-year resident of the city proper, he has written for the Baffler, Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, and other publications. He invites you to visit him at his web site or blog, but begs you not to point and laugh.

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