Indulging in an exhibition about excess in America

CRITIC'S CORNER//Art

`Material Matters' artists critique consumerism

Art Column

August 09, 2006|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

Consumerism, an economic ideology based on the substitution of manufactured wants for basic human needs, is deeply entrenched in American life, and it is the subject of Material Matters, an amusing, ironic and occasionally outrageous exhibition featuring the works of 10 American and European artists at Maryland Art Place.

The show, one of the continuing off-site events from last month's Artscape festival, was curated by Jason Hughes, founder of Baltimore's innovative alternative exhibition space Gallery Four. It's a devastating critique of a society based on overconsumption that suggests we may be our own worst enemies.

The anti-consumerist ethic is set early in the show by Salvadoran artist Walterio Iraheta's vivid color photograph of a plastic Superman toy towering over the shattered remnants of a porcelain figure of Jesus.

Like the charming but philosophically fraught miniature theater of Liliana Porter, Iraheta's works employ a cast of dolls, action figures and other seemingly innocent children's toys to act out serious adult dilemmas.

Here the artist appropriates the image of a popular comic-strip hero to suggest not only the displacement of traditional religious values by secular entertainment but also the moral transformation this implies, from the Christian ideals of love and compassion to something more like the pagan worship of brute force.

Iraheta's work questions the meaning of heroism in consumer society, where virtue is just another commodity that can be marketed under the guise of making one stronger, smarter, richer or sexier.

The moral bankruptcy implied by such illusions is made painfully apparent in a companion image, which depicts a destitute Salvadoran woman wearing a Superman T-shirt in front of her tumbledown wooden shanty.

Further along, the garishly painted faces of James Johnson's grinning telemarketers seem to dissolve amid the layers of deception their vocation demands, while Liz Ensz's wallpaper fabrics decorated with gas station pumps resembling the floral motifs of Islamic art point up the exploitation of non-Western cultural symbols by multinational corporations and their advertisers.

In the adjoining gallery, Simon Vega's installation re-creating a Latin American shantytown constructed out of recycled materials emblazoned with American corporate logos revisits the illusion of well-being fostered by consumerist ideology and contrasts it with the grim reality of Third World poverty.

The highlight of the show, however, is Cliff Evan's monumental The Road to Mount Weather, a large, three-screen video projection of appropriated images that occupies the longest wall of MAP's rear gallery.

The work's title refers to Mount Weather, described in Hughes' catalog notes as "a top-secret government installation in Bluemont, Va., 55 miles northwest of Washington. This complex houses above-ground operations and training facilities for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is rumored to contain an underground city designed to house key components of the American government, military personnel and a predetermined civilian population in case of nuclear warfare or some other national calamity." Evans' 15-minute video, whose elements are too complicated to describe here, is an absurdist compendium of all the excess, arrogance, folly and deceit of American society that might actually make a place such as Mount Weather necessary one day. In its inventiveness and sardonic humor, it's a vision of a mindlessly materialistic dystopia that elicits all the horrified fascination of a 60-car highway pileup.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

Material Matters also includes works by Laura Burns, Joel Kyack, Adrian Lohmuller, Daniel Rich and Jason Zimmerman. The show runs through Sept. 9 at Maryland Art Place, 8 Market Place, Suite 100. Call 410-962-8565.

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