“Social Practices”

Catching up with art critic Chris Kraus in Portland

The local connections of the Los Angeles-based critic were on the surface during her January visit to PNCA

By SHAWNA LIPTON

Chris Kraus is a prolific Los Angeles-based writer, art critic, and editor, but her latest collection of writing published by Semiotext(e) in 2018, Social Practices, has an origin story linking it to Portland, Oregon.

The seed of the book was a piece called “Kelly Lake Store and Other Stories” composed when Stephanie Snyder, the curator of Reed College’s Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, asked Kraus to contribute a monograph to the gallery’s Companion Editions series. “Kelly Lake Store” includes a rejected application for a Guggenheim Fellowship requesting funds to operate a general store staffed by art students in a remote small town. Kraus was earnest in her desire to provide the town with such a store, but the application was also satirical, in that she does not really view such an undertaking as “social practice art.”

The title of Social Practices is similarly tongue in cheek. Kraus is skeptical of what is called social practice art, wondering why students would go to art school to pursue what might otherwise be considered hobbies or trades such as gardening or cooking. She is critical of the industry that has grown up around MFA programs and their centrality in the LA-art scene. She contends that not every occupation needs an art degree to grant it legitimacy.

Chris Kraus, Social Practices, Semiotext(e), 2018
ISBN: 9781635900392

However, I am not sure if this thesis truly comes through in the book, or if it has been imposed retroactively as a talking point in order to provide a through line for this eclectic mix of writings, mostly composed of catalogue essays and other short works of Kraus’s art criticism commissioned over the past 13 years. Some of the artworks and events she responds to took place even earlier, and she did not make editorial revisions to the pieces since their original publication, except in cases where they had been altered from her original intent.

Art critic Chris Kraus gave a public talk at PNCA earlier this month/Photograph by Matthew Bowers

Although “Kelly Lake Store and Other Stories” contains her personal joke about opening a rural general store on Guggenheim’s dime in the name of parodying social practice art, the book also contains many examples of socially-engaged and community-based art she finds profoundly meaningful. One example is the artist and “debt resistor” Thomas Gokey’s “Rolling Jubilee” established in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which purchased defaulted debt on the secondary market and forgave it as a liberatory political act.

This is where Kraus’s art writing shines, in her intellectual excitement and enjoyment of subversive, politically engaged art and creative work. Kraus excels, not just at satirizing works she finds pretentious and self-important, but at writing about things she takes pleasure in, including work by her own friends, produced in communities she is a part of, proving a critic does not only need to “critique” but can also channel and communicate the spirit of the work using her own formidable literary talent.

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