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The Art of the Deal 

On Aug. 30, as New Orleans was commemorating the second anniversary of the great Katrina flood, the BBC in London announced that a diamond-encrusted platinum skull by British artist Damien Hirst had just been sold to an investment group for $100 million. The piece itself, a platinum casting of an actual 18th century human skull studded with more than $10 million worth of diamonds and titled For the Love of God, was declared the artwork with "the highest intrinsic value" in the world today by a representative of the British insurance industry when it was unveiled last June.

Late last July, some 500 financial executives gathered at the Deutsche Bank global derivatives conference in Barcelona for an evening's entertainment by the Rolling Stones, who were paid more than $5 million to appear at the event. "The best part is, it's coming out of your bonuses," Mick Jagger quipped to the crowd, which could no doubt afford to chuckle since a mere $5 million wouldn't even begin to dent the bonuses paid to that bunch.

What links Hirst's $100 million diamond skull to the $5 million entertainment tab for a financial conference is the sheer extravagance of the wealth generated by the financial sector of the global economy these days, as well as the way that excess lucre is infiltrating the art world. The rise of Hirst, whose sculpture of a medicine cabinet holding 6,000 hand-painted pills sold at a Sotheby's auction earlier this year for $19 million, has paralleled London's recent rise as the world capital of global finance. Not that there's any scarcity of mad money in Manhattan. As art critic Jeffrey Saltz put it earlier this year, "Is the art market making us stupid, or are we making it stupid?" His point was that the disconnect is now greater than ever between traditional art-world values and the influence of a new breed of collectors who think like speculators and are willing to pay obscene megabucks for "investment grade" works by artists such as Hirst or, in this country, Jeff Koons, himself a former commodities trader. The fact that Hirst and Koons are widely viewed by other artists as crass hucksters has hardly dimmed their luster. As latter-day conceptual pop artists, they blend with their occasionally garish subject matter.

In fact, it was Andy Warhol who set the stage for all this through his intentional merging of art, commerce and marketing. Asked long ago about when he decided to give up commercial art for the rarified world of fine art, Warhol denied that he had, reiterating that he was a commercial artist, period. Thus did the deadpan pixie of pop suggest that he merely mirrored the world around him. Which brings us to the work of Chic Connell, a commercial artist who shows in galleries yet seems removed from Warhol's legacy. A resident of Alabama, the world capital of college football and church attendance, his work, while related to pop, is more overtly rebellious. How else to explain Chloe, an odd mix of doodles, dots and crochet stencil patterns in which a guy with a moustache and ribbons in his hair gazes at a hard-edged babe in shades. Frilly calligraphy and curly locks set off by swatches of pink and black suggest nitrous oxide-inspired graffiti -- and just in time for Decadence. The others mostly reflect the same peculiar synergies of expressionism, graffiti and outsider art, and despite some cartoonish touches, it's all too weirdly personal to qualify as pop. Originally created as studies for larger works, Connell considers them "mental diaries."

Interspersed around the gallery are Rachel David's metal sculptures -- sinuous, organic-looking concoctions created through the nearly lost art of blacksmithing. That is, they were all forged by hand from glowing hot metal, a literally prehistoric process. They range from genteel, neo-art nouveau works such as Parachute to the darker, whiplash forms of Eat the Bomb and other related pieces that meld nature's grace with the capricious psychology of self-destruction. Profoundly personal in tone and concept, David's works reflect a far deeper degree of commitment than anything dreamt of in Damien Hirst's philosophy.

click to enlarge Although incorporating pop touches, works such as Chic - Connell's Chloe hark to the stranger, more psychological - world of outsider art.
  • Although incorporating pop touches, works such as Chic Connell's Chloe hark to the stranger, more psychological world of outsider art.
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