When you walk into JD Banke’s most recent exhibit at Glass Box Gallery, entitled Peasant Dreams, bass-heavy hip hop emanating from overhead speakers and large spray painted text lackadaisically positioned between two white gallery walls greets you. A large man assumes the “Atlas” pose, hoisting up an American quarter coin in camo-pants. The exhibition feels like a grunge basement just recently turned into a contemporary art space. At times claustrophobic, Peasant Dreams does well in placing art in approachable positions. His paintings and sculptures pop-out from the achromatic space by way of black outlines that sharply contrast the white cube – and it takes this designation far, as the floors and ceilings are also painted. The show spans 4 rooms, with enough pieces to feel full but never encroaching, and each individual work seems like a rebellious plea against the commercial art world. In fact, the entire show may be viewed as a sinister satire on the commoditization of art, punctuated by the final room selling custom made t-shirts and prints. Careful never to appear too overtly empathetic or political, Banke’s works embody an uncaring punk attitude mixed with simple yet bold forms to unapologetically reveal the dark side of contemporary artistic production and its complex reliance on currency.
With pieces like Myth Led, Banke paints burning twin towers with a menacing snake wrapped around them. The work’s aesthetic disposition lends itself to the North American currency sign “$”, and that symbology carries with it many connotations of financial underpinnings connected to the 9/11 attacks. However, the work could also point to a popular but controversial conspiracy theory pertaining to the validity of political truths surrounding the 9/11 WTO tragedy. The large green snake that entwines the two black and grey towers may be suggesting malevolent and economically driven intentions on the grand narrative built around the tragedy. Ultimately, even though this work takes aim at a specific event, Banke’s entire practice revolves around fearless questionings and critiques of established institutional economics and financial dealings.
Other works, such as Pray 4 Rain, are as similarly unornamented and honest about their content. The title becomes a gesture towards a cultural tradition of praying for rainwater in order for crops and livestock to survive. However, within Western society, the saying insinuates instead the urban-slang rhetoric “making it rain,” or feeling overwhelmed by raining money (or raining bills). The hands placed in prayer position holding the dollar-bill situate money beside religion as both absolute societal components, while also equating our reliance on capitalistic ventures with the unquestioning loyalty of theological doctrine. Again, the austere aesthetic only heightens the piercing critique Banke’s work involves.
While the art world may be market driven, Banke seems content in producing pieces that reveal the embedded reliance of art on currency. Yet as many artists can attest, some of the best motivation and influence originates from personal biography. It is no wonder then that Banke’s Mr. Coray, integrating biographical landmarks from his past, has such an embedded density and political charge. Throughout the exhibition, this artwork seemed the most saturated with personal references and commercial critique. The map is starkly cold and disorganized, with uncontained labels bleeding off each building, while three ominous and emotionless green alien-figures look below. Talking with Banke, these places in the work reference specifically distinct hangouts, vivid settings, and emotional environments for him. Their broken down appearance and depressing vibe conjure ideas relating to the psychological effects of emotion on recollection. Banke remarked how these places were not glamorous or “happy” in the sense that they brought joy, but that they were staples in his past that influenced him as a painter. The work is remarkable in conveying the broken historical setting that Banke inhabited, each building with a recognizable brand and dark humor tagline (Underneath Nike reads “Spandex, Bros, Uncomfortable). Banke’s painting style also undermines easy readings of the work, using the black-grey-white spectrum to disrupt visual fields. His binary color combinations of black and white abruptly make certain words pop-out, while extremely subtle shades of the same tone tease the viewer to decipher seemingly hidden-in-plain-sight messages. All the while the three alien forms menacingly peer down at the depressing scene, their message of “help us” (or is it meant to reflect our message as a culture?) floating between their heads.
Unsurprisingly, Banke’s studio and living space shares the same aesthetic of his exhibition; floor to ceiling white paint, spray painted walls, and a myriad of small to large works either leaning against each other or mashed together on his walls. Amending a bunk-bed structure, a workspace appears underneath an over-top bed. A disorganized mess, it seems the only things present are paints, wooden canvases, and artwork. Banke truly resembles the “starving-artist” trope. But he appears unfazed, instead focusing on producing. While the environment may seem chaotic, the more time I spent there the more creative and intellectual freedom I felt. Things are de-compartmentalized, flowing freely and uninhibited by structural organization. Banke’s studio truly does allow for the most appropriate production of art; one can’t tell where his work ends and life begins.
Banke’s critical and satirical cynicism leads to notions of poverty and lack of financial mobility, motivated through his current body of work. His current practice’s uncluttered aesthetic was something he’s always had, but not always been lauded for. He was even given the label of being a “slacker artist” in a city arts article critiquing his first solo show, something that left a lasting impact. Instead of turning and leaving, Banke decided to begin a “reign of terror” on art, and impose his artistic will. And after 10 years of producing, he isn’t even close to being finished.
Careful to always be humble and self-conscious, Banke remarks that he does not take art “too seriously,” instead finding value in self-reflexivity and remaining conscious of the art world’s own shortcomings. When he went to school for Fine Art, Banke stumbled upon the New Yorker article placing an MFA as one of the top 5 most useless degrees to receive. Once again, instead of folding, he took it as a challenge to preserve and create artworks. This is evident in Banke’s production through bold and honest content that doesn’t pander to typical art-world sensibilities, instead presenting a “take it or leave it” ultimatum to the viewer.
Ten years ago, Banke started to paint as an expression of skateboarding. He was obsessed with skateboarding, even becoming sponsored by a local skate shop. However, the sport degraded his knees to a point where he needed to make a decision; keep going and possibly destroy his walking altogether, or find a new immersive and motivating pastime. He threw himself at painting, hungry for exploration of a new creative outlet. Banke’s psychological disposition towards art is akin to a “squirrel,” he notes, constantly burrowing into new ground for fresh and hidden acorns of artistic truth.
Banke plays the art world with “scoundrel with rouge” sensibilities and ambiguous style. A sense of honest intentions with a devil’s grin, he carries out critical gestures with apt and decisive brush strokes. Even his counterfeit rolls of dollar bills and dice placed in corners of his Peasent Dreams show – painted over with a similar figurative and vivid style – signify Banke’s wisecracking farcicality by connecting gambling and art dealing. While his work may not suit everyone, Banke’s pieces all prompt the intellectual apprehension people hold for currency within the art world, highlighted when, recently, a highly regarded painting sold for $180 Million[i]. That skepticism is vital for art viewers and producers to be reminded of, helping keep a critical distance from the art-market’s 1% lifestyle. The real cultural producers who create and deal art without exorbitant pricetags are, after all, the reason the 1% can exist (Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Gregory Sholette). While many become consumed by this attractive narrative, Banke stands defiant to showcase the superficial relationship between currency and art.
Check our more of JD Banke’s work at 31colours.
Matthew Kyba is an independent curator currently situated in Portland, OR. His curatorial interests focus on exploring unique exhibition strategies and alternative spaces. He recently graduated from OCAD University with an MFA from the Criticism and Curatorial Practice Program.
(Images courtesy of the artist)