Sam Trout Priceless Works Gallery

619 N 35th St, Suite 100, 349-9943

Through Feb 1.

In this month's Artforum there's a letter to the editor from artist Wolfgang Tillmans, who's piqued on account of an article that identified him as a "crossover" artist, with his roots in commercial photography. He's very careful to point out that he has always been an artist, although one who happens to enjoy the aura imparted to his work by glossy magazines.

This sly response reveals the particular pervasive anxiety that dwells in the margin between the artist and the commercial professional. Many of their skills are the same, and the work may look, in some cases, quite similar, but there's a philosophical margin of difference, even though in most good bookstores photography books are still shelved away from art books, and even though artists let their work be used as illustration. Some of these paradoxes reflect a reality about earning a living, and others push on the very boundaries of art, but it is not, in most cases, hard to tell the difference between art and what lies outside it.

Sam Trout has so far been best known for extra-art activities: for his line of Lula products (coasters and T-shirts featuring his little freaked-out hipster girl), for graphic design and illustration, and for being half of the I Heart Rummage team (another repository of debate about art versus craft). His art has appeared in a few group shows, but has not yet made as much of a mark.

Which is fine, since he's very much at the front-end of his career. So whether the aggressiveness of his first show is aimed at the public (for slotting him as an illustrator) or at himself (for failing to make the leap) isn't quite clear; nonetheless it's palpable. In a series of installations, he takes a number of clichés about art and makes them concrete: Polaroids, each with an image of shit in a toilet, stacked untidily in two actual toilets; 20 more Polaroids, hidden coyly behind a curtain, of the artist's own body, each with a little glistening trail or gob of ejaculate; a section of wall with a hammer embedded in it. These obviously represent the sort of facile musings on what art is and what it means to create it that an art student might make: the artist digests his surroundings and shits them out, art is just masturbation, to make a breakthrough you literally need to break something. But it's also obvious that Trout knows full well how silly these gestures are, so that their effect is antagonistic rather than introspective.

These installations lead up to a series of canvases on which Trout has cannibalized his own illustration work by cutting apart line drawings on acetate and then reassembling them. The floor is strewn with little bits and pieces of those drawings--like blood that's been let--and Trout has provided a display book of what the drawings were before he hacked them up (Lula, a couple fondling each other and picking each other's noses, a skiing moose). On the show's opening night, Trout kept moving these works around on the wall, as if to remind you that the meaning and aesthetics of the work were variables under his control, precisely the opposite of work for hire.

But all these gestures are unnecessary. The two-dimensional works are quite good (lively, packed with plenty of implied violence, full of images that you can tell were once something else, now mutilated past recognition) and begin pretty much where his previous art ended. They propose something beyond the usual strategy of drawing the viewer in with what looks familiar, something about visual overstimulation and the grave-heap of images; the best works are those where Trout has allowed some emptiness, so that the pieces seem to have drifted into place, here unstable like Dr. Seuss pileups, there dense and jungley.

You might see the installations as a brave lead-in, showing all the angst that went into producing the work. You might even see it as confessional. But as interesting as it is, all told, to contemplate the fraught passage from illustrator to artist, the proof is in the art, not in the shit.

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