COLLEGE PARK — The other day I bought a package of condoms from a work of art.
No kidding. The work of art is "Old Glory Condom Corporation." Its several parts include a wall logo with the stars and stripes in the shape of a condom and the motto "Worn with pride country-wide," AIDS information in the form of posters, and a vending machine that sells condoms.
The Old Glory Condom Corporation, based in Provincetown, Mass., sells condoms, T-shirts and tank tops and donates part of the profits to AIDS research. It was thought up a year ago by artist Jay Critchley as his contribution to the exhibit "Trouble in Paradise," which originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The corporation now has about 60 retail outlets in Massachusetts and may expand to college campuses nationwide. It's a serious business and anti-AIDS campaign that began as a work of art.
Meanwhile, the work of art is still touring with "Trouble in Paradise," now at the art gallery of the University of Maryland College Park (through Oct. 26) and worth the trip. The show consists of works by 14 New England artists or artist teams who address social and political concerns. If one is not always sure these conceptually oriented works would qualify as art from a purely aesthetic point of view, one is usually engaged by this show. It doesn't sit back, it grabs you by the lapels and shakes you.
Harry Bartnick's paintings look like slides of disease invading the body; look closer and the disease is "civilization" invading the world. In "Arctic Lesions" the invaders are oil rigs and ships. In "Small Factory" the factory radiates a reddish glow across the neighboring landscape; it looks like infection spreading from a wound.
Peggy Diggs' "Some American Flags" consists of four flags, all with slightly different arrangements of the stars and stripes. Let's see now -- which is correct? Most people on a tour the other day seemed uncertain, which is just Diggs' point: We make this big deal over the flag and we don't know what it looks like. If you're liberal you may think this is aimed at conservatives and vice versa; either way you're wrong -- it's aimed at both.
Carrie May Weems' photographs and captions explore racial stereotypes, from a cookie jar in the form of a black mammy to jokes so vicious they couldn't possibly be printed in this newspaper. Weems doesn't want any "Mm-hmmm" reactions to her work; it's calculated to make you hate it, and it does.
Paul Minotto's faux naive style is perfect for his "how to" painting/drawings. They contain cliches that one may believe as a child, then grow to view with cynicism -- but whether we like it or not, things work that way. For instance, in "How to Become President" we're told "Smile a lot and say positive things." "Get married. Pretend you like kids if you don't."
Other works deal with toxic wastes, nuclear war, abuse of women and more. A few, including collaborative pieces by Y. Lim/H. Vaughan Siebel and the group Bread & Puppet Theater, fall flat. But the average is still pretty high. Chances are you won't forget "Trouble in Paradise" as soon as you leave the gallery.