Of Spirit Portals and Zombie Formalists

PicMonkey Collage

Every now and then a story falls in your lap whose dissonant notes converge in an unbelievable symphony: self-delusion, and the attendant quest for fame and visibility; a Certified Psychic who communicates with the dead via “mechanical writing”; Zombie Formalism (represented above with an example from Lucien Smith’s “Rain” series); and an abstract painting that may or may not allow its viewer to interact with ghostly spirits from beyond the grave. It all started when I received a press release about a painting called “Pierre,” by the Jacksonville, Florida-based artist Greg Furie. No ordinary work, this, but rather a Spirit Portal Painting, through which (according to a psychic named Laura, who spends roughly half her time “in the astral realms”) a “somber” ghostly presence was attempting to communicate. So far, so good. The nitty-gritty of the painting itself is a bit hard to parse, mainly because the bulk of the release is actually given over to Furie’s criticism of the “handful of shot-callers” who manipulate the art market and “determine for the collector what works are important and what works are not.” This is why Furie has sidestepped this crooked game and is selling “Pierre” for only $54.4 million dollars, a fire sale compared to the work’s original $250 million price tag, per this notice on Artsy. (Not sure what price earlier, non-portal works might command, like this one of “Pig Boy,” or this drawing which gives actress Melissa McCarthy a garbled, Maori-style facial tattoo.)

Here’s where things got weirder: Furie claims Jerry Saltz as a fan of “Pierre.” Namely, he states that the painting has been “validated by several reputable high-end art sources,” and that Saltz “likes” it. I was stumped: Was this an outright lie, or had Saltz indeed done something in passing — “liking” an image on Instagram, say — without realizing that he’d end up conscripted into a bonkers press release blasted out via the for-hire “media intelligence company,” Meltwater? And so I broke the cardinal rule of the Internet (Don’t Pet The Crazies) and asked for more information about this supposed Saltzian validation. Turns out (shocker) that Saltz’s only reaction to “Pierre” came via Twitter, mainly in response to Furie pestering the famously accessible-via-social-media critic for his thoughts. And it was certainly a queer form of non-validation, considering that his take on the Spirit Portal Painting’s many-colored, drippy composition was that it “looks pretty ZoFo,” as in Zombie Formalist (I love this abbreviation, which sounds like the name of a fast-food falafel chain); when pressed, he tried to let Furie down politely (“Will Just say I don’t like it. Xo” [emphasis mine]).

But I still had so many questions, chief among them how exactly a painting could facilitate a portal into the spirit world. And Furie’s explanations about how watercolor and water dried to create this phenomena were not filling in all my blanks (certainly not to the point where I’d feel comfortable Venmo’ing him 54.4 million bucks). Despite some quasi-scientific close-up details provided on Furie’s website, and assertions that a spirit’s fuzzy visage had coalesced on the canvas in a Virgin-Mary-on-toast kind of way, the artist’s own verbiage surrounding the painting had less to do with ghost-communication and more to do with how fucked up and backwards the art world is. “Are Major Art Dealers Worried That A Spirit Portal Will Take Their Business?,” he wonders. “No Picasso, no Basquiat, no Cezanne, no Rembrandt, no Bacon, no Rothko, and no Van Gogh had a spirit portal in any of their paintings,” he adds, a statement whose validity is pretty much unimpeachable. Via Twitter, Furie was even more confident and combative: “Who gives a flying fuck about a Picasso when a spirit portal is in a painting? That’s like saying I’d rather drive a Hyundai than a Bentley.”

Unfortunately, my earlier email engagement with the artist was about to draw me in personally, sucked into the voracious portal that is Furie’s self-promotion machine. I had left town to go report from Art Basel Miami Beach, where many high-priced artworks were changing hands, none of them able to facilitate communication with undead beings. Furie wrote me again to follow up on my initial queries about “Pierre” and noted that he had appended my own endorsement to his Twitter biography. And there it was, indeed! “Scott Indrisek, Exec. Editor w/ Louise Blouin Media” was now listed as a supporter of all things Spirit Portal, along with Saltz and the psychic, Gisabel (who likely coughed up his spiritual “blurb” for the painting via this awesome service where he’ll answer “one question via email, phone, or Skype” for only $30).

We can fast-forward through the part where I kindly ask Furie to refrain from making me an unpaid spokesperson for a $54.4 million dollar abstract painting whose surface has a small aperture through which squirts the tortured essence of an anonymous man who perished in an accident an unspecified number of years ago. (He removed the mention on Twitter, eventually.) The artist accused me of misleading him, and of using my feigned interest and affection for “Pierre” as a springboard to enter into communication not with ghosts, but with Jerry Saltz! After previously being an admitted fan of my own journalistic work, Furie, true to his surname, viciously retracted his own endorsement, attacking me for being too spineless to share the glories of “Pierre” with the world (an injustice I am correcting here, right now). He threatened to get in touch with my bosses to inform them of my malevolence. He would possibly call me out by name, a lot, on his Twitter account, which has around 8,000 followers, even if most of them are likely spambots or direct-marketing demons rabid for any follow-backs. I tried to make amends by suggesting he reach out to Stefan Simchowitz, who often seems very amenable to critiquing new work. We had fallen so far, so fast! And our debacle, Furie said, might even make its way into a whole new press release.

And here, friends, is where I recognized the true genius of Greg Furie — not as a painter, because painting for Furie is clearly nothing more than a diversion en route to his actual practice, which is a post-studio, post-Conceptual one. I’ve always admired David Horvitz, an artist who leverages a forum like Wikipedia for subtle subversions; or the artist Brendan Fowler, who gives such attention to his exhibition press releases that they become adeptly crafted pieces in their own right. Furie, I see now, must likewise be hijacking Meltwater as a medium to disseminate what are essentially coded, text-based artworks, since such marketing companies make it easy for all who are willing to pay to spew whatever they’d like at a targeted demographic; and anyone who reacts, even in disdain, is seamlessly absorbed into a possibly parodic promotional mechanism via social-media platforms. The beauty of it, the sheer frictionless glory of a system where, even now, as I type, I may be unwittingly incorporated into future press-release artworks, is almost too much to contain. Do I believe in spirits who can talk to us from beyond the grave? No. But do I believe in Greg Furie, inventor of the Spirit Portal Painting and purveyor of the finest digital-promotional Gesamtkunstwerk of all time? Yes, dear reader, I do. And you can quote me on that.

—Scott Indrisek @indrisek

 (Photo: Montage by Scott Indrisek including a detail of Lucien Smith’s “Rain” painting via Paddle8)