Comments on Contemporary Culture
By Mike Richison
thedetroiter.com, Wednesday, January 25, 2006
For the exhibit American Icons at Gallery Project in Ann Arbor, curators Judith Jacobs and Ben Van Dyke have brought together a thought-provoking body of work that is as varied in media as it is in subject matter. Comprised of the work of eighteen artists, the exhibit achieves two very difficult aims. First of all, the exhibition questions the very definition of an icon. Secondly and most importantly, the show proves that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The individual pieces take on new layers of meaning due to their proximity to each other and their context within the exhibit.
According to Jacobs, the curators’ original intent was to address established American iconography – we immediately think of waving American flags, bright corporate logos, friendly cartoon characters, and idealized movie stars. The curators ended up, however, with work that Jacobs says “skated around the borders” of what would be traditionally considered an American icon. Logos and cartoons are present, but mixed in are darker symbols representing psychology, religion, sexuality, politics, and history. There is also a sense of melodramatic and cartoonish gloom in the air that is compounded by the internal dialogue of the show.
Although the exhibition has a substantial amount of instantly recognizable cartoon and comic book icons, the artists often treat their subject in a rather disconcerting way. In Payback’s a Bitch by Bask, we find the beloved Winnie the Pooh up to his elbows in honey. He sits on top of the word “attack” as an angry swarm of bees surround him. But these are not the harmless bees of Walt Disney – but crudely rendered killer bees with bared teeth and angry red eyes.
Bask’s work proves to be an captivating and unsettling treatment of America’s favorite willy nilly silly old bear, but it is in direct comparison to other work that makes it an even stronger piece. If you stand in front of Payback’s a Bitch, you can see a row of small mock reliquaries by Jack Summers to your left. These wall pieces draw their imagery from national politics, comic books, Christianity, and mythology – creating many levels of irony. Using the visual language of religious iconography, the small gold boxes contain cut and paste images that criticize American politics and pop culture.
When you stand in front of Bask’s work and look over at Summers’, you become aware of a strange dialogue. From this vantage point it is possible to consider the clueless, gluttonous but otherwise good-natured Pooh as a surrogate for the presidential administration. Summers and Bask seem to tell us that America is up to its elbows in a sticky situation surrounded by malevolent insects.
Peter Williams also employs familiar icons amidst an aggressive cartoon landscape. A work entitled Turbulence combines Ronald McDonald with geometric boxes that house bulbous depictions of airplane cabins and nondescript cartoon images. Williams also works into his composition a small missile shape that pokes out from organic crevices that suggest the human body. Boxy architectural elements surround and interrupt the nightmarish images.
There seems to be a conceptual bridge between William’s large canvas and the dual house-like structures of Meghan Hartwig. My Fears presents Ronald McDonald on the side of a small house-like structure. On the same structure we find an American Flag and a man in a radiation suit. Another house-like structure bears the words “Fear of Cocks” with an image of a rooster. Nude women cast in porcelain teeter precariously on top of the houses – creating a feeling of instability. The relationship between Williams and Hartwig seems to transcend the mere presence of the world’s most recognizable corporate clown. Both use very deliberate architectural framing devices as a means of displaying and perhaps containing the playfully rendered but unnerving cartoon imagery.
Hawtig brings the fear of cocks into Stuck…Body Says “Yes”. Heart Says “No”. Green Light Go! No, No, No. In this piece, she explores a very psycho–sexual juxtaposition. She again enlists the clay woman mold, but this time she encases her in a glass jar. A bar-coded banana topped with a needle attempts to break the glass and defile the woman. Barcode and traffic lights and stop sign imagery glazed on both figures suggest urban consumerism.
Within the sightline of Hawtig’s needle tipped banana is a grid of Dustin Ogdin’s digital inkjet prints. To compose his photographs, Ogdin uses collectible sports figurines on bold solid colors. The action figures were manufactured so that the physical strain of the game is captured in their poses and faces. Ogdin’s work exploits this theatricality to pose the figures into homoerotic compositions. The American icon of a powerful sports hero is not only subverted by Ogdin’s treatment, but also by the work of Hawtig.
In direct contrast to the abstract psychological symbolism and gender-related imagery is the work of Luke Engel. Engel taps into American history to revive an old set of semiotic icons. In two pieces entitled Hobo Mojo 1 and Hobo Mojo 2, he uses charcoal and chalk on found wood to build a mosaic of symbols once used by tramps and vagabonds that roamed America in search of work. The pictograms communicate places where a drifter can get food, work, or a safe place to sleep.
The studied grid structure of Engel’s work is echoed on the other side of gallery in the work of Scott Hocking and Clinton Snider. An assemblage taken from the Relics series, they also present the viewer with a set of nostalgic American semiotics. A pedestrian traffic light, rusty tools, a child’s plastic shopping cart embedded in concrete, a garage sale painting, a Battlestar Galactica bedsheet, and empty wood frames are all contained in identical wooden boxes. Like Engels who collects written symbols, Snider and Hocking give us a set of sculptural symbols with which we can build our own story of loss and salvage.
The cynical narrative fabric woven by Van Dyke and Jacobs is so tight that even the most benign and celebratory images in the show are affected. The bright Crackerjack sailor in Jacob’s own Crackerjack Turns On and Crackerjack Carpet takes on a sarcastic air due to its proximity to darker and more troubling work.
The conceptual and formal interactions are seemingly infinite. There are eight more artists participating in the dialogue that weren’t mentioned in this review, but it is difficult to think of the pieces individually due to the intricate relationships between them. In American Icons, Van Dyke and Jacobs have created a complicated assemblage of images and symbols. Weeks after the seeing the show, viewers will find themselves trying to sort through individual symbols that overlap and eclipse each other in a never-ending web that only grows more complicated and convoluted. –