By Sabrina Rodriguez
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Herb Katzenjammer will be one opening the doors to his "Kollection of Kontemporary Konceptual Art" in the Design District. Katzenjammer and his wife Kitty began collecting after seeing the famous -- and famously shamelessly hyped -- "Sensations" exhibit in 1999, which prompted New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to try to cut funds from the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of the show's supposedly obscene content. According to the release from the "Konceptual" show, it is "a stronghold of prestige and influence, and is nothing short of a testimonial to the extraordinary taste and knowledge of its proprietors. After a profound period of introspection and eventual consultation with a host of internationally important curators and dealers, the Katzenjammers decided to concentrate exclusively on artists whose names begin with the letter K."
Before any Kleins or Kowalskis attempt to force their art on this particular collector, know that Katzenjammer is really performance and visual artist David Rohn, who himself was on the verge of being locked out during Art Basel. Even artists like Rohn, represented by galleries, were having a hard time finding a place at the table. For most local galleries and museums, this inaugural Basel is no time to take chances. You put your biggest guns forward -- and your most marketable. If a gallery represents twenty artists but will only be exhibiting one or two during Art Basel -- well, you can do the math. So Rohn decided to make up his own collector and collection.
The spoof, of course, is on the business of art. It may be lighthearted, but Rohn wants to provoke questions. "We do need to look at how the [art] system works. It is money-driven," he says. "We have this idea that highly knowledgeable curators and other experts find art and talent, and bring it to the public." But increasingly, says Rohn, those experts are less influenced by what they really think is talent, and more concerned with what a deep-pocket collector will buy: "[Collectors] made their money selling stock or automobiles or something, and then started buying art, which is a good thing. But within a few years they are 'experts,' which isn't necessarily such a good thing."
Since Rohn couldn't break the commercial system, he decided to break into it. He says the germ was planted several months ago, after talking to a local woman involved in the arts about what would be happening during Basel: "'I'm putting together tours to visit collectors and stuff,' she tells me. I said, 'Oh really, do you have the Katzenjammers in there?' 'Who?' she asks. I said, 'These really big collectors.' Quiet on the other end of the line: 'Well, no, but tell me more about them. I'm interested.' 'Okay,' I say, 'they only collect artists whose names start with the letter K....'"
Rohn developed the parody further and eventually presented the concept to Design District developer and art patron Craig Robins's company, Dacra, which has been organizing myriad Basel-time events. Dacra liked it and gave Rohn space.
What you'll see as Katzenjammer leads you through the collection is also a spoof -- takes on artists or art movements, all of them painted, sculpted, and photographed by Rohn, who as Herb will sport heavy black-rimmed spectacles and short black hair, but who as Rohn actually has no hair at all. For instance, there is John Luke Kerra, "whose smiley face/mailbox pipe bomb piece literally exploded on the scene this past season.... As per usual these days, the Katzenjammers seem to have gotten there first," reads the faux catalogue. In fact the painting is a U.S. map with smiley faces pinned on, the faces themselves forming a giant smiley across the country -- what in real life Luke John Helder was allegedly trying to create in his mailbox pipe-bombing spree earlier this year.
Or the work of Kiki Karl -- er, the real-life conceptual sculptor Carl Andre. "I don't know what's good or bad art," says Rohn. "But there is some art that sells and some that just doesn't. Carl Andre is one who sells -- every self-respecting collector seems to have an Andre. [But] his work hasn't really changed in twenty years." So Rohn thought he'd change it for him in the Kollection. "I didn't just want to knock off other artists; that's too easy, or too uninteresting, and it's been done. Kiki Karl is maybe what Andre would have done if he'd moved on."
Even though Rohn's performance pieces are often satire, he takes them seriously. Last year he became female real-estate agent Gretchen Bender as part of gallery owner Brook Dorsch's events meant to coincide with the Art Basel that never was. Rohn took over a neighboring house that used to be a crack den, decorated it, and tried to sell it. "There were these collectors, a couple who've been very good and have helped me out a lot," Rohn remembers. "They came separately, and he arrived first. But you can't let your cover down for a minute. He seemed very mystified at the whole thing, and he looked at me and said, 'I'm here for David Rohn's show. Do you know where it is?'