“People worry about their money problems more than they do death” – Montoya 2016
Just out of the chaotic bubble of Bond Street, the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair offers a quiet spot for reflection through their phenomenal collections and regular free exhibitions. Fresh from the success of The Beaten Path, their exhibition of Bob Dylan’s latest visual art, the Halcyon’s latest collection showcases the work of Colombian-born contemporary artist Santiago Montoya. The collection merges two separate exhibitions: the first, and most prominent, is Surfin USA, and the second is a selection of work from The Great Swindle, taken from the current exhibition at the Art Museum for the Americas in Washington. This is a continuation from Montoya’s recent exhibition here in early 2016, Money Talks, and will run until February 12th.
Montoya’s work has money at its core, both conceptually and materially. His socio-politically motivated manipulations of worldwide banknotes create a colourful canvas. His signature use of rolled notes to form dynamic multi-layered artworks have quickly become iconic. Surfin USA scratches at the surface aesthetics of modern popular culture to gesture towards the financial system that operates beneath. The exhibition at the Halcyon hosts a wide selection of Montoya’s works, centering around a sculptural rearranging of the word “money”. As you walk through the door you are greeted by a giant banana made from rolled bank notes (“An American Original”), which has subsequently become one of Montoya’s most famed images. This sets a slightly humourous tone for the exhibition as you wind through the various maps, words, symbols and picture scenes that make up the rest of the collection. Many of Montoya’s images subvert infamous figures such as Mickey Mouse and The Velvet Underground, alluding to a social and financial crisis at work in contemporary culture. His use of international currency inspires an eerily familiar connection between viewer and the pieces created by Montoya, which is further played upon in the manipulation of the notes into familiar images.
This particular collection of Montoya’s work is expanded from the triptych “Surfin USA 1, 2, & 3”, which functions as the centrepiece of the exhibition and stars Mickey Mouse in his three stages of surfing: on the beach, riding the wave, then fully submerged as he has capsized. The root of the inspiration for this piece comes from the iconic 1929 short clip where Mickey takes to the waves to save his beloved Minnie Mouse from drowning. 1929 is of course the year of the Wall Street Crash, twentieth century capitalism’s most significant crisis, and Montoya’s use of bank notes as a medium draws attention to questions as to the value of aesthetics, prodding at the topic of investment and worth in determining artistic value. The transformation of bills of exchange into canvases and their alteration through stretching, cutting and moulding forces viewers to look beyond the surface of the images themselves and into the creases and topography of the art as a whole. Montoya forces us to see beyond the monetary value of the notes, instead directing us toward their artistic potential.
Without delving too deeply into the the political implications of the images, Montoya builds on the image of capitalism in crisis throughout the rest of the exhibition. Through his use of money as an artistic medium, Montoya asks us to value bank notes for the aesthetic beauty he creates with them, rather than their value as currency, which in turn causes us to question the price of aesthetics. The mundane nature of some of the other artworks nods to Warhol and Pop Art: bananas, pirate flags, maps and slogans become elevated to central subjects. At the core of the exhibition though is Montoya’s strong sense of irony and humour, epitomised in the first sight of the banana upon entering. His gentle prods at consumer culture through words such as “Buy” and “Sell” are not revolutionary statements calling for the downfall of capitalism; instead the real genius lies in their subtlety, calling us to gradually rethink our reliance on something so easily made humourous.
The Great Swindle at the rear of the gallery is the second part of the exhibition and comprises of work made by Montoya over the past ten years, providing a complex examination of our relationship with financial systems. His multi-media approach combines traditionalist painting, found objects, and video documentaries. This section of the exhibition contains less humour and satire than Surfin USA, instead viewing paper money within the context of political propaganda. Here the focus is much more on the establishment and the political and financial systems by which money is controlled. The faces of presidents, revolutionaries, and dictators are formed in these arrangements of the rolled notes, and are just as recognisable as the images before of Mickey Mouse, with President Lincoln created an arrangement of dollar bills bearing his image. The national consciousness has somehow become synonymous with paper notes and the series documents nationalist iconography and idealism. Figures of the establishment become distorted in “note-form”. This goes further than the playful mockery of Surfin USA and, as you leave, imprints Montoya’s more serious underlying message about value and aesthetics.
Bananas and surfing Disney characters make way for greater questions on the role and reliance of banknotes in building historical values. You won’t look at the money in your pocket in quite the same way again.