Monday, March 04, 2002

This weekend's entertainment: a trip to see the New Additions to the Altoids Curiously Strong Collection --- a travelling art show cum marketing gimmick which is presently ensconsed at the Clifford-Smith gallery, in the new gallery district on Harrison Avenue, as a Boston Phoenix pick of the week.

Most of the show, like a lot of bad art, seems organized on the general theory that if you can't figure out why anyone would create, curate, or care about the work that is sitting in front of you, it only goes to show that the artist is that much smarter than you are. If you don't see why, for instance, you are supposed to be interested in video shot from a miniature surveillance camera glued to the back of a tarantula crawling through a desert (a piece by Sam Easterson, which includes the dead tarantula) you're just not hip enough to get it.

Sometimes, to reinforce the pretense, the art is accompanied by manifestoes which explain them to the viewers --- and if the manifesto is also head-swimming gibberish, that just reinforces the message. Sometimes, in fact, the manifesto swallows up the work. Quoth the official guide:

Trisha Donnelly's sound piece, a simple bell ringing in the galleries once an hour, is meant to blend seamlessly into the exhibition space so that visitors may not recognize the tolling as an art work. Nonetheless, the bell's associations with the formalities and austerity of church and state have the capacity to profoundly affect one's viewing experience.

Or, one might just think that the gallery has a nice clock.

And so it goes, through a mannikin made of duct tape, a drawing of a few dozen matchbooks which "makes the ephemeral visible" because the cover of each matchbook has something to do with the song the artist was listening to while drawing it (cool!), a model of a hotel pool made out of styrofoam packing material (wow, deep!), and posters for a Jackson Pollack exhibit which have "appropriate" old Peanuts strips for use as a background. Quoth the official guide, "Connecting these two cultural artifacts --- understood to be at opposite ends of the high/low spectrum [it's important to point that out, or someone might not know] --- Muller cleverly questions whether artistic identity is arbitrarily assigned" (Yes, how true! Including Muller!).

While most pieces go for obscurantism, there are a few which go to the opposite extreme:

In a scathing indictment of racism in the United States, Dreas Scott juxtaposes a quintessentially sterotypical black figure of the antebellum south --- Aunt Jemima --- with the text "if white people didn't invent air, what would we breathe?"

Well, I feel scorched.

The sad thing is that the notion of art as a comment on social issues --- without the hackneyed, didactic extremes of Dread Scott --- isn't always pretense. A few doors down from Clifford-Smith, in the new gallery space of the Open Studios Press, there's an exhibit of new American painting, highlighted by a genuinely creepy piece by Melora Kuhn called "Lineup". The picture shows four prepubescent girls in a lineup, standing on circus stands, with the lines of a police lineup in the background; it's half as if they're on display, and half as if they're accused. Whatever is going on, they don't much like it --- they stare right back at the viewer, implacable and angry. Without any direct reference to, say, the Jonbenet Ramsey case, this does make you think about how our society deals with young kids. It's just as well they're not in the same room as the Altoids Curiously Strong Collection; it would wilt under their gaze.


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