For the first part of our Summer Session, we’re thinking about labor, and today we’re considering the traditional site of artistic work: the studio. Author Jordan Amirkhani notes: “If the studio has traditionally been a place of solace from reality’s complications, this exhibition seems to respond with urgent ambiguity by asking important and unresolved questions about the place of artistic practice within today’s society, and the traditions of Western art making that have not (and will not) go away.” This article was originally published on May 19, 2015.
In his 1971 essay “The Function of the Studio,” conceptual artist Daniel Buren defined the artist’s studio as a metadiscourse of “frames, envelopes, and limits” imposed upon the working artist in the age of advanced capitalism. Claiming that this privileged space had become nothing more than an “ossified custom”—a “commercial depot” for curators and dealers to ship works out into the world (and thus detach the artwork from the conditions of production and site of creation)—Buren stated that artists could only resist the domestication of their work by preserving it within their studios forever (like Constantin Brancusi) or abandoning the four walls of the studio altogether for a life of art making away from institutional repression and commodification.
Buren’s provocation turns on the idealized notion of the modern atelier, described famously by Honoré de Balzac in his 1831 Romantic tale of artistic failure, “The Unknown Masterpiece.” Setting the story in a cramped, skylit room cluttered with the detritus of an artist’s struggles—the idealized working environment for the solitary male genius of 19th-century literature and art—Balzac dramatized the central dilemma of the studio as both a mental and physical space that encloses the corporeal and psychic “energy essential to art’s existence.” Thus, Buren’s desire to reconnect the studio with social life seems to fall in line with our current era of “post-internet artistry,” where nomadic career paths, collaborative practices, work-from-home jobs, and overnight internet art stars are the norm, and notions of passive aesthetic contemplation and private retreat are interpreted as oppressive and old-fashioned.
A quick trip to any café exposes the ominous cloud that hangs over Buren’s call for a “post-studio” age, as Starbucks and pay-as-you-go office space evolves into the new office for artists, students, and creative professionals clicking away on their laptops. Yet the mythology of the sacred atelier persists in our contemporary culture, as Amer Kobaslija’s current series of paintings at Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans indicates. Taking up the weighty legacy of the artist’s studio, Kobaslija’s work explores the studio as a concept, a locus of artistic identity, a space of sociability or private retreat, an alchemical universe of transformation, as well as a psychological construct.