I make memes to expose the art world, says acerbic creator 'Jerry Gogosian'

American gallerist Hilde Lynn Helphenstein's Instagram account is a satire of the contemporary art world, and now that world is starting to sit up and take note

31 May 2020 - 00:55
By Londi Modiko and Lara Kosef
Image: @jerrygogosian .

Amid feelings of current hopelessness, the affirmation and comic relief of online escapism - meme culture in particular - offers a welcome outlet.

US-based meme-maker, artist and gallerist Jerry Gogosian speaks truth to power while making us laugh. Recent pandemic-ridden weeks have seen the evolution of the already well-established culture of memes.

While these deliberately badly-made compositions circulating social media are nothing new, elitist platforms - like the art world - are starting to see the value of this popular culture formula. Museum social media manager Adam Koszary was briefly hired by Tesla based on a witty tweet and crowned "museum king of memes" by The New York Times.

The Getty, Metropolitan Museum and Rijksmuseum have expanded a movement of people re-enacting paintings in their living rooms, to ridiculous effect. But the most galvanising meme-maker of the art world is known by her alias Jerry Gogosian (who was involuntarily outed as artist and gallerist Hilde Lynn Helphenstein this year) and has been using Instagram (@jerrygogosian) as a platform to satirise, explain and celebrate the absurdities of the contemporary art world since 2018.

Behind her quick wit is a compulsive love of art but also a disclosure of deep truths such as an impenetrable hierarchy led by mega galleries, staff exploitation, lingering sexism and broken business models at the mercy of a flawed system.

Lara Koseff and Londi Modiko, organisers of Joburg art show, UNDERLINE, spoke to her about all this and more:

Modiko (LM): There's so much truth in your satire. When you started making art memes, was honesty an important aspect of what you were doing?

Jerry Gogosian (JG): Jerry Gogosian is at the cutting edge of stating the obvious and I feel reluctantly principled in a disassociated moment. Most of the subject matter of my memes isn't really about jokes. Maybe I'm slightly exaggerating. But actually, I'm usually not. And so now, thanks to a screenshot and a few words, anyone culturally literate can understand the mysterious "vanity fair" of the art world through the power of a meme. The things I talk about on my Instagram account are the open secrets of the art world. The pretensions of this universe were unveiled to me when everyone got so riled up about what I was doing - regurgitating back what I hear and see.

Image: @jerrygogosian .

Lara Koseff (LK): Did you ever think the content of what you were putting out would be relatable in such disparate contexts as South Africa and Brazil?

JG: I enjoy the idea that I make people from far away laugh because I usually make these memes alone in the middle of the night, laughing like a hyena in the dark. I never thought anyone would look at what I was doing, ever. I remember having 100 followers and thinking "who are these losers?" I have 73k followers now and some days I worry that I don't know who my audience is any more and wonder why I should keep doing this.

LM: You create a lot of memes comparing mega galleries to smaller ones and you've recently become digital director at Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, following experiences of working at mega gallery Gagosian and running your own space. Do you think this art hierarchy is working or does it need to change ASAP?

JG: In the context of the art market, art is a cultural trophy and is considered a financial asset, traded like any other derivative within a financial portfolio. The mega galleries are high-performing global brokerage firms. The dealers that create these markets have an incentive to make good on their client's investments through successful sales at auction, putting the work in highly visible collections and creating an institutional presence for the artist in order to create faith in the artist's staying power as a cultural treasure. As Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street, "It's all about bucks, kid. The rest is conversation."

There are, of course, smaller economies within the art world with more Utopian underpinnings, but I'm talking about the art world where the big money exists. Within this universe, the actual art objects exist merely in symbol as a currency. That's why you often see really bad art that's really expensive and it makes little sense. The art world is also one of the last legal economies that's unregulated. Let that sink in ....

I highly doubt Covid-19 will do anything beyond accelerate capitalism and art will simply evolve. What should change are people's absolute belief in the religion of late-stage capitalism in which art's value can be translated into a currency that's traded on the stock market.

After running my own gallery and working at every other kind of gallery from artist-run to blue chip, I see that this is a hypercompetitive food chain and it's hard to stay in the game for the majority of people. Way too many people want to be "professional artists". Deciding to be a professional artist is like deciding to be a professional sports athlete, a movie star, a pop star or trying to get struck by lightning. More than likely, you're never going to make any real money from art, but this shouldn't deter people from making art seriously.

People create systems to express their beliefs and the way we structure our society reflects that back to us. Maybe we should change, but I don't think we're ready or able to right now. Art is probably not our highest priority at the moment. (Someone prove me wrong, please.)

LK: You've recently expanded your output to a podcast that offers illumination on how the current pandemic is affecting the art scene globally, and it takes on a serious and intimate tone. Was this purely responsive to the current situation or did you plan to create something along these lines in any case?

JG: My dream is to make a television show about the art world but in the meantime I make memes and give interviews.

The podcast — listen to it here — came along right after I was outed as "Jerry Gogosian" and we started quarantining. I figured I should use the opportunity to speak with key figures while people cared wh``````````````````````o I was.

I am about to start doing Instagram Live interviews with AR/VR artists from around the world while I research an exhibition I plan to curate in augmented reality. Stay tuned for that.

Image: @jerrygogosian .

LK: In your podcast conversation with art critic Jerry Saltz he refers to you as a "lifer" in the art world several times. Could you explain what you think he means?

JG: I'm one of those people who didn't choose art. Art has chosen me and trust me, I've tried to escape into other professions, bacchanalian living, love and anarchy. On any given day, I wish I could have just gone into advertising or clinical psychology or something "normal" like that, but I can't. I wake up and think about art from the time I open my eyes until I go to sleep. It's not a normal way to live. It's genuinely a "passion", which may just be a veiled expression for an absolute unquenchable greed and obsession for beauty, poetry and the creative manifestations of the human mind.

LM: The messages of togetherness and unity we're hearing from museum and gallery directors, do you foresee the art world really uniting or is this just a phase because everyone feels helpless right now?

JG: I can't really answer this nicely. People who normally do not give off the air of warmth and kindness are acting this way online (AKA in public) because they are scared and don't know what to do. A lot of people are losing a lot of money right now, not to mention getting sick and dying. These armchair attempts to create unity are merely a ploy for sympathy, but let me assure you when they get their post-Covid big donations or close the next big deal, they aren't inviting the commoners to the castle to feast.

Again, if you're the head of a major auction house, museum or art gallery and you're reading this, by all means, prove me wrong! I think the most positive real changes to be seen will come from those most devastated personally and financially by what's happened. I think that the process of losing something (that wasn't working for most people to begin with) will force people to resurrect an alternative art world and I find this is where hope lives. People don't change because they are comfortable. Necessity is the mother of invention and it's time to declare what isn't working dead.