Cultured Magazine

February/March 2016

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140 CULTURED IN THE AGE OF DIGITAL REPRODUCTION In her new role at UTA Fine Arts, Allese Thomson combines a long view of art history with a 21st-century flair for connectivity and commerce. BY KATE SUTTON PORTRAIT BY CHRISTIAN MACDONALD "One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later," Walter Benjamin writes in his seminal 1936 text, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In other words, Benjamin believed creativity must not only keep up with new technology, but must also generate the need for it. Not surprisingly, as today's art world gains more advanced capabilities, it also requires a constant rethinking of its existing support systems. Last February, art-lawyer-turned-agent Joshua Roth sent ripples through the scene when he was chosen to head UTA Fine Arts, a new division of United Talent Agency that would pioneer an alternative model of support for artists and galleries in an era when Oculus Rift and animatronics have infiltrated art fair aisles around the globe. "A whole new generation is experimenting with media in a different way," Roth explains, citing artists like Alex Israel and Jordan Wolfson, both of whom are interested in expanding traditional definitions of art. "Our company, given that it has this vast reach into the worlds of entertainment, media, tech and branding, is focused on how we can be a bridge and serve as an adjunct to galleries that sell art, and how we can also do other things that the galleries don't do," Roth says. While he admits that the agency is still in the learning stages, he imagines it as a means to provide artist studios—"essentially multimillion-dollar small businesses"—with the critical infrastructure and insight they need to keep pushing forward. When assembling his team, Roth says he "had to find people who share my passion and excitement about art and who will devote their lives to building something designed to suit the changing conditions of the art world." One of his first hires was Allese Thomson, an associate editor and contributor at Artforum.com, who joined UTA Fine Arts last fall. Raised in a tight-knit family in Davis, California, Thomson had a brief stint as a model in New York before deciding to go back to school. "After being part of that industry, I found myself very interested in the history of images and how women have been portrayed, both historically and in present-day media," says Thomson. She linked this interest to an earlier experience when she attended a lecture on art history while studying poetry at a summer program at Cal Arts. "I remember feeling like suddenly all of history just lit up. Politics, economics, social issues and culture, everything just collapsed into one image and then those images started to act as metaphors for entire time periods. This is when I really became interested in the formation of icons." At 21 years old, Thomson enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley, where she attended classes with professors like Anne Wagner, T.J. Clark and Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby. "A major turning point for me was when I read 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,' which I think changes everybody's life a little bit," Thomson adds, laughing. "It showed me how culture could be used as a political force. "That's probably one of the reasons I am in this job right now. When it comes down to it, I'm really a populist," Thomson admits. "The art world has a really nebulous relationship with populism. There's a lot of hypocrisy there in believing in the people but then not wanting to be associated with them." Thomson traces this phenomenon to an art historical trope: "For so long, the traditional idea of the avant- garde was something that stood outside of the system, that caused friction, but we're living in a time when it's impossible not to be part of the system. Anything that happens has to come from the inside." Thomson has enjoyed an impressive vantage point on "the inside" from her position at Artforum, where she started as an intern at the website and quickly worked her way up to associate editor. Artforum.com's editor-in-chief, David Velasco, first encountered Thomson while giving a talk on art criticism at New York University in 2010. "I didn't go in thinking I was going to meet a future star. But suddenly, there was this bright, beautiful woman asking one acute question after another," Velasco recalls. The next morning Thomson reached out to him, inquiring about an internship. "I'd never met someone so smart, charming and irresistibly persistent in all my life. Hiring her was one of the best decisions I've ever made." During her time at the magazine, Thomson actively promoted artists like Anna-Sophie Berger and Bunny Rogers, who both work at intersections of art and culture. Thomson's crystalline prose caught the eye of curator and dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who invited her to collaborate on the catalogue for "Overpop," an upcoming exhibition-as-manifesto, zooming in on artists who play with Pop Art in the digital realm. "Allese is engaged in real life, not just art life, which is unusual for art writers," Deitch says. "She has a genuine enthusiasm for art that interests her, not just a removed academic perspective." Thomson's enthusiasm stems partially from the deep conviction that art can be critical, subversive and radical. She sees her new role with UTA Fine Arts—where she is connecting artists to companies, brands or other ventures outside the art world—as a chance to help start conversations beyond the pages of art magazines. "Here you have the opportunity to actually work on the level of idea with artists who are doing things that are politically or socially important, and you introduce that to people who might otherwise just choose Murakami or Damien Hirst," she says. To illustrate her point, she cites one of her first assignments for UTA Fine Arts: to commission art for a mall in Hong Kong. "When you get this kind of assignment, first and foremost you need to find an artist whose works can hold their own within a commercial setting without falling into the realm of entertainment or design," she says. Thomson immediately thought of Daniel Pflumm, an artist who empties company names from corporate logos to create abstract shapes that remind Thomson a little of Ellsworth Kelly paintings. "What I love about a work like Daniel's is that you look at it and you are able to appreciate the aesthetic value of it as an object but then there's this twist, and you see that there's something a lot more complicated and darker and critical happening," she says. ART

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