In New York's art world, Lawrence Rinder's sins were many. He didn't have a PhD. He hailed from San Francisco. Most unforgivably, he believed in scorning "the market-dominated trends of the mainstream art world". Nonetheless, he was crowned the ringmaster of the 2002 Whitney Biennial, an "American Idol"-like spectacle of youth, envy, talent and commerce, or what Artforum calls "the show that art critics love to hate".
In the weeks before his debut and subsequent pillorying in the press ("2002 is the Bland Biennial," wrote Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice; "extraordinarily bland," agreed Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker), Rinder told W magazine, "When I tell people I'm curating it, they shake their heads like I've set myself up for certain failure. But that's liberating--to have people's expectations so low."
Rinder hopes to get the last word with "Revenge of the Decorated Pigs", his recently released novel, which draws heavily from his biennial experiences to create what he calls a "subjective feverish dream". Billed as "a revealing tell-all", the book mixes gay sexual intrigue and cut-throat gallery politics with a colourful cast of characters--gangsta rappers who shop at Barney's, closeted globe-trotting business moguls, and edgy art-magazine publishers who commit themselves to weekend stays in mental hospitals to avoid "unpleasant" people.
At the centre of the storm is Kevin Forester. Just shy of 40, he's curating the Biennial at the fictional Merton Museum of Art, and he has a laughably humble mandate: "to confirm the dealers' and critics' judgment, not challenge it." But he chafes at the task, preferring to recruit outsider artists because, Rinder writes, "His responses to art tended to be visceral, weeping and getting a hard-on being the primary ways by which he knew he encountered a real masterpiece."
With such an aesthetic compass, Kevin is no stranger to sexual scandals. He misses a key appointment because he falls asleep in a porn theatre, cavorts with an engaged art-dealing tycoon ("young, hot, rich as Croesus") and gives the casting-couch treatment to a hotshot artist, only to send him a terse rejection e-mail the next morning. It can be hard to keep track of the book’s roll-call of dealers, artists and hangers-on and their respective motives, both financial and sexual.
"Revenge" picks up steam when Kevin heads to Oregon, visits a commune and considers a decades-old land sculpture for inclusion in the Biennial. As adversaries from the New York art world toss up obstacles, Kevin hatches a plan to reanimate a dormant art project. His association with the work, which may end his career, would make stars of unknowns who create "art that matters to life, which is filled with energy, mystery, and imagination, who haven't caved into the market or become slaves to the most recent art fashion trend." Cue redemption--and a breathless finale.
"Revenge" has been released by Publication Studio, an indie publisher in Portland, Oregon, that makes limited-edition books on the fly, with ink-stamped manila folders as covers. Had Rinder written the "The Devil Wears Prada" of the New York art world, he might've earned the attention of a more mainstream publisher. But "Revenge" is a different beast, an absurdist novel of manners that builds to a prank ending straight out of "Jackass the Movie". Perhaps like Kevin, the fictional curator, Rinder prizes cultural success on a small scale. Near the book's end, Kevin's latest boyfriend asks him to describe himself:
"I don't mean what you do for a living. I mean who you are." He paused, looking into Kevin's eyes. "What do you love most?"
"Ben & Jerry's Half-Baked Low Fat Frozen Yogurt."
~ CASEY SANCHEZ
Image credit: ketrin1407 (via Flickr)