Art review: John Knight at Richard Telles Fine Art

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From the department of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” comes Conceptual artist John Knight’s “Worldebt,” a 1994 work that resonates anew today. Lining the walls at Richard Telles Fine Art, most of a set of 165 slightly oversized credit cards represent a mid-20th-century example of the tidy profits to be gained from investing in the cruelty of disaster capitalism.

The fictional bank cards were made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, established at a meeting in the northern wilds of Bretton Woods, N.H., a year before the end of World War II. Each card sports a National Geographic-style lithographic photo of a nation whose banking system subsequently saw IMF intervention. Knight’s initials replace the “trademark” sign next to the word “Worldebt,” while the telephone number of the bank’s fraud and corruption hot line substitutes for an account number.

The alphabetically arranged selection of cards begins with Afghanistan and here ends with Russia, while Kuwait, Laos, Malawi and many more come in between. Midway through the lineup a card is turned over; the small print on the back explains an expressed need “to ensure the continuous flow of capital into the world market,” so that foreign investment might remain profitable.

For whom it might remain profitable is not explained. But in economically bleak 2008, Wall Street did pay $18 billion in year-end bonuses to its New York City employees.


The show is nicely timed for another anniversary — the first anniversary of America’s most recent banking collapse, with its colossal quotient of pain for all but the wealthiest. (Former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson recently charted America’s transformation into a giant banana republic.) In light of it, the linear installation of the cards at a 4-foot height around the gallery is the show’s most powerful component: To see the works, it is incumbent upon a compliant viewer to bend over.

– Christopher Knight

Richard Telles Fine Art, 7380 Beverly Blvd., (323) 965-5578, through Oct. 24. Closed Sun. and Mon.

Photo credit: Fredrik Nilsen