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It is undeniable that we live in the society of the ephemeral and the disposable where everything has a short life and is quickly replaced.  In a world where everything has an expiration date, the proposal of artists like Ray Beldner takes on special relevance.


A life devoted to art

Born and raised in San Francisco, California, award winning Beldner has been interested in art since he was in grade school: “I had two goals as a kid: become a professional baseball player and an artist!”.  After studying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in painting and printmaking at San Francisco Art Institute, he studied for a Masters of Fine Art (MFA) – sculpture from Mills College in Oakland. His work has been heavily influenced by Marcel Duchamp, Fluxus, Arte Povera, and Bay Area Conceptual artists David Ireland, Paul Kos, and Jim Pomeroy; an artist whose work derives from everyday life and is created with scavenged or found materials which are often ephemeral and humorous.

Since 1990, Beldner has extensively exhibited his work across the United States and in Europe and Asia. His artwork can be found in many public and private collections including the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the San Jose Museum, the Lancaster Museum in Los Angeles, and the 21c Museum in Kentucky among others. In addition, Beldner taught for 20 years at schools such as the San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts, San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz.

Show me the money!

Beldner defines himself as a “conceptual materialist”: I like stuff and I like ideas. I tend to find my materials and images for my work rather than create from scratch. The conceptual artist, Sherry Levine has said: “The world is filled to suffocating. Every word, every image, is leased and mortgaged.” It begs the question of originality: why bother making new images when there is so much existing material ripe for the picking? Previously, I have used salt, water, coal, clothing, books, oil, live animals, text, dirt, porn, stolen items, and yes, even US currency to make my work.”

Experimenting with a variety of diverse materials, it was not uncommon for paper money to be considered as a medium for his works: “I think I became interested in money as an art medium when I was teaching and I had to give lectures about the work of famous artists. I found that I was frequently asked about the economic value of a piece (how much does it cost?) rather than it’s artistic, or intrinsic value. The economic value of a given object seems to be an indicator of quality for many people, at least in the US.”

“The world is filled to suffocating. Every word, every image, is leased and mortgaged.

Sherry Levine (Conceptual Artist)

The curious way people tend to look at and discuss art inspired Beldner to start a body of work called Counterfeit(2001-2004). In that series, he re-made “signature” artworks of 20th century masters using US currency, recreating exact versions by sewing the dollar bills together into hand-made quilted versions. “The money was real, the artwork was fake. I thought if I made the pieces out of money—foregrounding our obsession with the economic value—I could broaden the discourse about art to include discussion of its social, historic and aesthetic values.”

© Ray Beldner | “Loving it”, 2005
"Money Talks" - © Ray Beldner
© Ray Beldner | “Money Talks”

This series allowed Beldner to reflect on Money Art as an artistic movement and the value of money in today’s society: “Money is an icon, a myth, a metaphor, a collectible, a talisman, a commodity, a means to an end, and much more. Money is ubiquitous, yet we never seem to have enough. It is a common object of desire yet we rarely reflect on its worth. I am struck by the strength and suppleness of banknotes, the craftsmanship of the engravings, and the uniqueness of the paper on which they are printed. In its design, currency holds the highest aspirations of a country, yet it is the most common and utilitarian object in our everyday lives.”

In this reflection Beldner captures his works with paper money, shows the alchemical work of the artist: his hands, like a philosopher’s stone, are an instrument for the metamorphosis of a material that we use every day and that we take for granted, into something with a different value: Working with it to make Money Art has made me aware of the almost alchemical process that transforms mere bits of paper into valuable legal tender and that same cash into valuable works of art. Part of that metamorphosis has to do with faith. Because money and art have no intrinsic value, they rely on our personal and collective trust to sustain the value we assign them. Everyone has a unique and complex relationship to money and art, conditioned by his or her economic, social, and cultural background. Money art reveals and explores these complicated relationships.”

Beldner has participated in Money Art exhibitions over the years and curated his own. His exhibition, On the Money: At the Intersection of Art and Commerce involved a group show of six artists, each using money in their unique ways. It traveled to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon and Washington DC. “Until I started working with currency, I had no idea how many artists were similarly fascinated by it and used it for the same purpose! There is a long history of artist’s obsession with money. As Oscar Wilde once said: “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money.”

On the other hand, Beldner says that the biggest challenge in working with paper money is not having enough of it: Currency is a wonderful material to make into artwork. It is strong, pliant, relatively inexpensive, and easy acquired. American dollars are fairly monochromatic so my color palette is limited. When I couldn’t figure out a way to sew bills into a particular form, I would grind them into a dust and glue it onto three-dimensional forms.”

© Ray Beldner | “Koons Dog”, 2011

Everyone has a unique and complex relationship to money and art, conditioned by his or her economic, social, and cultural background. Money art reveals and explores these complicated relationships.

His work with paper money received excellent reviews, as well as causing an element surprise in the audience. Most people seem to be delighted and pleasantly surprised by my money work. I have met others though who feel like it’s somehow a waste of resources, as if I could have used the money for a better, more economically viable or noble purpose, like feeding the hungry. I would say to them, what is better than taking this base, common material and transforming it into an art piece?”

There are three main questions I am constantly asked about the work: 1) Are the dollars real? 2) Is it illegal to cut up and sew the dollars? 3) How much money do you typically use to make a piece? The short answers are: Yes, No, and $300”

The “beyond” of the things we left behind

© Ray Beldner

This artistic alchemy gives a second life to the objects we leave behind, when we assume that their useful life cycle is over. Beldner rescues and presents a “beyond” for everyday objects where forms merge to create new elements.

Thus, what was initially a pause in his artistic work became a new stage in his career. “I had taken some time off from making work for a couple of years and I actually didn’t know where to start. So I took the advice that I used to give to my own students if you don’t know what to do then get a magazine and tear it up and play with it and make collage.”

The result was the Shape Collage Series (2016 – present) – A study that still makes reference to art history and borrowing older imagery. In Beldner’s own words: “it’s an exploration of line, shape, color, texture and movement.”

© Ray Beldner, “SwimFloatDrifting”, 2021
© Ray Beldner

Art as an invitation to dialogue

Every artistic manifestation seeks to generate a debate, a conversation about an aspect of our reality; Beldner’s art invites us to appreciate transformation as a generator of new forms and concepts. His work focuses not only on the result, but on the creative artistic process that generates it:

“My goal is to create a dialogue about art, not money, and bring the attention to these masterpiece’s value as historic, aesthetic and socially important works of art. The money is just a means to that end. I also want to highlight the transformative power artists have to turn base materials into valuable works of art. In a sense all artists are alchemists who “mint” their own money when they make art.”