A third series, Raw Model, is displayed on the gallery’s second floor, and is taken from photographs of models that Cano found on the Internet.
Cano tells me the Wall Street 100 began as a jab at the hubris he witnessed all around him after moving to London in 1993. There he saw a moderate interest in the world of finance transform into a veritable obsession, where doctors and architects gave up their practices to become hedge fund managers. Prices in London skyrocketed, especially its art.
“Everyone else couldn’t pay the prices in London, or buy a home there,” Cano says. He added, noting the obvious irony of his work and the ideas that went into creating them, “most of my collectors loved [the paintings].”
All the paintings have been decontextualized from their original source. Like Jasper Johns’ targets and flags, we look at the portraits of these figures in a different way. The characters are silent and inscrutable, except for our previous knowledge of them. Shorn of their original context — the article they appeared in and the newspaper that published them — our own ideas about what these figures represent emerge.
Being a good pop artist, Cano is unapologetically commercial (in the Warholian and Hirshian mode). And this is the point. Not only is Cano playing on the emotions stirred by these figures, but he’s also directing our attention to the commercial side of the exhibition enterprise, no different, perhaps, than Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, exhibited soon after the actress’ death. The iconography of dictators, as many Chinese artists know (do we really need another Mao?) and the nouveau riche (who also purchase the works) become products that are sold at the high end of the art marketplace, while the artist himself alludes to our own implication as consumers (whether viewers or collectors) in the transaction.
Curiously, though, none of the works on display are for sale; a joke directed at other collectors, perhaps, or a gallery’s attempt to capitalize on the name of an increasingly popular contemporary artist by exhibiting his work.
At first, I was deeply suspicious of the collector’s choice of figures. It was either a crass attempt at publicity or a statement about some racial exclusion. After all, who would want Mao’s portrait hung over their bed. Financial industry bigwigs such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs will obviously attract the attention of Taiwan’s captains of finance. But will Cano’s original criticisms come through?
Then again, conceptual art is not meant to be hung, but collected and stored. After thinking about the choices, however, a logic began to emerge. Juxtaposed with the capitalists in the other room, Cano is criticizing the largesse the WSJ is giving over to these figures, and the way media turns some into heroes without the underlying struggles that go into making them so.
In the 90 minutes I spoke with Cano, he kept pulling out his mobile phone to look for images of Egypt’s Fayum mummy encaustics — ancient portraits painted on board and placed on the deceased — to contextualize his own portraits in a broader historical framework. These enigmatic, though strongly realistic, entablatures symbolizing death allow us to wonder who these ancient figures were. When thought about in the context of this show, it forces us to think of how the reputation of Warren Buffett or Lee Kwan Yew (李光耀) will hold up to posterity.