For the past few decades, the American artist Mark Wagner has been snipping up US dollars to make intricate collages that comment on Capitalism, greed, and materialism; elaborate allegorical pieces that prompt us to reconsider our relationship with such a powerful, albeit banal object. You’d be hard pressed to find an artist who so boldly, and blatantly subverts the dollar bill into being his medium which is…technically illegal, right? Title 18, Chapter 17 of the US Code says that anyone who “alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales, or lightens” American money is liable to face jail time. As Black Lives Matter protesters across America call for “defunding the police,” and a global pandemic continues to show cracks in the US governing system, Wagner’s work suddenly makes for more uncomfortable viewing than ever before…
“Taking an object of public value and turning into an image of personal value seemed like a pretty OK thing to do,” Wagner says on his website, explaining that portraits were the first images he made. “People are so familiar with [the dollar bill], they have it in their hands on a daily basis,” the artist told CBS in 2014, and aside from George’s cameo, “no one is really aware of what it looks like.”
In the art world, his work has been cause for celebration and eye-rolls alike; fans relish in its kitsch and accessible nature, haters don’t dig the heavy symbolism, the gimmick of something like “The Money Lisa.”
Wherever you stand on the choice of medium or message, you can’t deny the insane amount of skill and patience it takes Wagner and his assistants to build these pieces. Peek inside his meticulously labeled drawers, and tell us it’s not satisfying:
“I hold (I don’t say hoard) materials pretty much only to assure myself that it’s never the lack of materials getting in my way,” he writes on his blog, “It’s a heavy burden. I own a palette jack.” In fact, if you want to learn more about Wagner’s thoughts about money – as currency, as a cage, as some kind of near “primordial goo,” head right this way. His work has also been shown at MoMA (NYC), The Smithsonian, The Getty, and others.