By EMANN ODUFU, October 2022
For his first solo show at the National Arts Club, Samuel Stabler tackles the concept of money in modern society. In doing this, Stabler explores a subject that has almost become taboo in our society and from which people are highly polarized in their views. Yet, at the same time, money dominates the zeitgeist and is ever-present in almost every aspect of our lives as humans. Similar to an archeologist or social psychologist, Stabler traces the theme across various cultures, geographies, and time periods.
In August of 2022, while he was still in the process of creating the exhibition, I touched base with Samuel, who works out of his Athens, Georgia studio, to talk about the concepts and themes which dominate the show.
EO: Money is an interesting title for the show. We've been talking over the past few months as you've been conceptualizing and creating it, and I know this is not a fetishization of money nor a condemnation of it. Personally, I like the title. I think it's strong and has a good ring to it. I'm interested in what inspired you to tackle this topic or theme for this show at the National Arts Club.
SS: My work is always personal. Everyone's work is personal, but it's really what I'm thinking about in my everyday life and how it translates into the things I'm working on. In some cases, I'm obsessed with some particular artist, so I'm appropriating that artist's imagery. Or I'm watching these Western movies, so I'm stealing film stills from them. In some cases, I'm nostalgic, and I watch sports all the time, so a particular player or magazine I had as a kid may make its way into a piece. I've found that where I am in life, money is what we talk about all the time, and it's definitely not even fetishizing money. It's just the subject that we talk about. For example, I spoke about more mortgage rates today with an electrician. I don't know why we talk about that, and it's interesting. Not the actual conversation about mortgage rates, but this thread is running through that we're all middle age, and we're talking about financial stability or the fact that we have or don't have it. So, I thought, well, I'm going to react to that and create a body of work that hopefully draws on that and even more exciting themes of money.
EO: I agree with you. I think it's interesting to look at money from a day-to-day type of perspective on a micro level, but also from the perspective of it being a massive part of what drives these systems that our world operates on. When I look at the works, one thing that interests me is that you are taking iconography from across times and cultures. You are showcasing a Western viewpoint, but I'm interested in why you wanted to complicate the narrative by including imagery that references the wealth of other cultures and periods before our modern society.
SS: I just think it's a more interesting narrative to have a broader stance. It's still through a Western lens. I'm a Westerner. I'm operating in the West. The lens is still of an American of European descent talking about wealth. That's the reality, but I tried to be very considerate in my appropriation. Appropriation is ever present in art, but it isn't very easy. It has to be done with tact. For example, I have a painting in front of me. I'm looking at the one that's the renaissance fish market, so it's a European oil painting that I'm appropriating. No one cares if I'm drawing that, but then I've got these Igbo masks from the Benin empire. That's something that I have to do tactfully and carefully because I need to ensure the narrative doesn't get co-opted by something I'm not intending.
My perspective is what it is, and I have to make those decisions based on how I navigate the world. I'm interested in the Benin empire because it's a lost empire. It's lost from a Western perspective. It's in the present because of that article you sent me, about these cultural masterpieces being repatriated. Germany is giving a portion of them back, which fascinates me. It's art, its diplomacy; it's bureaucracy. Bureaucracy by itself is rarely exciting, but it is interesting to me when all of those factors coalesce.
EO: While I don't think this show has a central message and is more of an observation of money as a cultural and societal phenomenon, one thing that is especially clear in your work is the interconnection between culture and markets. It reminds me of this concept of Cultural Hegemony. It's a pretty significant idea, but a portion asserts that the state uses cultural institutions to maintain its grip on capitalistic societies.
These cultural institutions create images that eventually represent the universal dominant ideology or "common sense" values of all and thus maintain the status quo and a ruling class worldview.
To me, your juxtaposition of various source material speaks to these aspirational images or symbols that keep modern society running. I want to say that I'm not forming an opinion for or against capitalism in this question. I'm more interested in how the exhibition uses absurdity to tap deeper into the world's money systems being a reflection of the human psyche.
SS: My first thought is that's really interesting. There's a lot to unpack. With this project, I'm not fetishizing it and not condemning it, but I am putting it in the context of high art. I'm still creating gallery artwork, so it is part of a more extensive system of capital movement. I'm not doing this and giving it away.
EO. It's for profit.
SS: Yeah, it's for-profit, and it's not for a small profit, hopefully. I'm not against operating in that system, so the emphasis I'm making is not about that system. However, seeing it as another layer on the work that I'm making is enjoyable. Oh yeah, I'm making a show about money to make a bunch of money with scenes of money, and I'm sort of enjoying that thought. I thought it was interesting what you said about creating images that represent commonly held societal values.
EO: Yeah, it does that and, in the process, reinforces the system that it exists within. Even thinking about it from the perspective of the media or advertising. We're putting forth specific images representing different ideas of what it means to be a human in modern society. So, to me, it's a reflection of the human psyche. It's how someone thinks we should behave, and often for their own personal or company gain. The images that pervade the zeitgeist and, as a result, our minds.
SS: Yea, the stock exchanges are symbols that we recognize. Whenever you see a stock market, it's a busy scene. It's the frenetic energy. It's probably the most distinctive symbol of capitalism. In the New York Stock Exchange, you sometimes see people ringing the bell. It's always an image in motion. I like the idea of these scenes being stagnant in this exhibition. So, I chose to appropriate an image without people for the New York Stock exchange. It's really about the architecture in the space. I think it's recognizable. Some people will recognize it earlier than others, but you can't not see it once you get it.
So, this is why I like the image, but the space's gravitas may speak to that idea of reinforcing the wealth theme. The London Stock Exchange; I didn't know what it was like. I couldn't visualize its interior, so I looked at the space's images. From the outside, it's just the classic Greek Revival building I used to walk by when we lived in London.
EO: Can you talk about your attempts at creating a level of absurdity by juxtaposing all this diverse cultural imagery? Once you remove these images from their usual context, you're creating new meanings and associations.
SS: When you utilize an absurd pairing, it's disarming. It allows people to engage with it in a way they may not have done with the image in its everyday context. All the images are conceptually about money. It's the Benin empire. It's Kirby Smith, who's the highest-paid football coach in college football. It's the river Nile boat which was the primary mode of transportation when the Egyptians controlled the Mediterranean. It's the tulips that keep showing up because they're beautiful but also because of the Dutch Tulip Market Bubble in the 1600s. Some people think it's the first financial bubble. There's the last emperor of China, which was the last time China had the lion's share of the global economy. There's portraiture. Pele and Dolly Parton are juxtaposed with the New York Stock Exchange. There are sports grabs and benign ship paintings. I say benign as a positive because everyone loves a ship painting. Hopefully, throwing them all together allows people to engage with the show's theme a bit more.
EO: Throughout the show, one thread that reoccurs is your usage of the garages where various super-successful corporations were started, namely Google, HP, and Apple. Why did you highlight these companies by memorializing the garages they were created in?
SS: I chose three garages. I don't know how many companies have been founded in garages, but for some reason, garages play a role in the origin stories of many of them. The ones I settled on were HP, Google, and Apple. Hewlett-Packard developed the audio oscillator in that garage, which ended up being their big break when they sold it to Disney for Fantasia. They say this garage was the birthplace of Silicon Valley. Google was started in a garage in 1998. The garage is also essential to the startup story of Apple, as you may know.
I like drawing garages, which are sort of benign spaces. However, in this sort of absurd context, they become more interesting. I think the image may be a little comforting for those who grew up in suburbia and had a garage. Coming back full circle to what we were initially talking about. Garages are a coveted real estate thing right now. People my age or in my parent's peer group are like, "Oh God, I got to get a garage for this thing." So those are some of the things I'm drawing at with the garages.
EO: One of the words that comes up a lot in our talks about this exhibition has been the phrase "zeitgeist moments." As a self-proclaimed history buff, I'm curious about your definition of a zeitgeist moment and why these moments are important to you. I'm also curious about how you narrowed down these moments from culture and history that you wanted to use in the exhibition's works.
SS: Firstly, I just think it's an enjoyable word to say. How I operate as an artist or even human is I'm always trying to find the things that we're either explicitly talking about or what we're all thinking about but not talking about. Then I bring it into the art context. That's what my brain is usually doing when it's idling. I'm thinking about why we are talking about this or why we are doing this. So, one thing I've been thinking about recently is that we are so fractured culturally. I don't mean that in a way that's like, " Oh we're politically fractured," I mean, there's so much culture now, but there isn't necessarily a mainstream culture now. There's so much content and media that we have more than the same five television shows to watch. There are so many options of media for us to consume. Music is probably the closest one where we all maybe listen to some of the same stuff, but then, of course, there are so many sub-genres of music, and it's so regional. Also, it's international in the true sense, not international in the way western culture calls other things international. Whenever I identify something that people in my circle or my bubble are thinking about, I latch onto it because it's a common thread. So, back to the money theme, it comes up all the time, and I'm probably the worst at it. I'm constantly like, "Yeah, there's a real estate thing we could do or whatever." Also, I think people should talk about money more. People not talking about money benefits those who have a ton of money. They don't want you to talk about money because they want it to be a bit of a taboo subject. WM
Emann Odufu is a freelance, emerging art and culture critic, curator, and filmaker who has written articles about assorted art shows over the past year. His work can be found in publications such as the NY Times, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail, Office Magazine and Document Journal. Most recently he has curated Money, a solo exhibition of artist Samuel Stabler, currently on display at the National Arts Club.
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