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Made in America

Is There An Upside To Cultural Imperialism, Or Are We Really Just The Great Satan?

Detail from Cliff Evans' "The Road to Mount Weather"
"Damn" by Joel Kyack
"Meeting Lena" by Walterio Iraheta.

By J. Bowers | Posted 8/16/2006

Material Matters

At Maryland Art Place through Sept. 9

Gallery Four guru and consistently cutting-edge curator Jason Hughes continues the 25th anniversary parade of high-concept, artfully arranged group shows at Maryland Art Place with Material Matters, an exhibit intended to explore "the sociopathic tendencies within our society by appropriating various examples found in consumer culture and social indifference." A mouthful, to be sure, but the 10 local, national, and international artists showcased here create works that fit Hughes’ mission while remaining immediately accessible, always tongue-in-cheek, and often profound.

The show opens with a rare instance of site-specificity. Berlin-based artist Adrian Lohmüller’s performance art project "fecal COMMERCE" uses a sandwich-board sign outside the gallery and floor-mounted decals to lead Power Plant Live! and Port Discovery tourists to the public rest room inside of MAP and a wall-mounted installation that documents his ongoing efforts to find public toilets by asking municipal employees for advice. It’s an activity that he encourages his audience to continue, by sending him photos and written documentation of their efforts. Listing his materials as "questions, toilets, uniforms, and feces," Lohmüller explores the effects of consumer culture on bodily functions and calls attention to the fact that most "public" rest rooms in America are found within McDonald’s, chain hotels, and other commercial spaces.

Two artists from San Salvador similarly challenge consumer ideals with works that repurpose the detritus of Western pop culture. Walterio Iraheta’s Kryptonia series of sculptures and photographs subverts that most American of icons, Superman, in surprising and compelling ways. "Meeting Lena," an arrangement of action figures that poses Superman in a compromising position with two buxom, bikini-clad Japanese anime characters, pokes fun at the modern-day tendency to value sex appeal over heroism and integrity. More poignantly, Iraheta’s photograph "Supergirl in Atitlán" captures a careworn Guatemalan woman posing outside of her rough-hewn shanty home, dressed in Superman’s iconic red and blue uniform. The effect is absurd and depressing all at once, illustrating America’s overwhelming urge to export its pop culture, not its resources or humanitarian aid.

Installation artist Simón Vega’s "Shanty Mall" is a miniature model of an American shopping mall, constructed with Adidas and Nike shoe boxes, discarded Starbucks and McDonald’s packaging, slabs of cardboard, and other materials commonly used to build shantytowns in Third World nations. The concept is simple yet staggering and, like Iraheta’s work, underlines the economic disparity between America and the rest of the world while questioning the U.S. capitalist machine’s eagerness to colonize underdeveloped countries with Western products and consumer ideals.

Similarly, local fiber artist Liz Ensz blends Western consumerism with Middle Eastern design principles in "Gas Pump Floral Motif," a 2005 work cleverly mounted to mimic wallpaper on one of MAP’s walls. Using the large-scale repeating patterns found in Islamic religious architecture, Ensz incorporates images of gas pumps into an otherwise innocent-looking floral design. By blending a Middle Eastern cultural touchstone with an easily recognizable symbol of America’s real interest in that area of the world, Ensz creates a uniquely satirical hybrid of sacred and profane imagery.

Washington, D.C.-based artist Jason Zimmerman’s art books, bound in pristine white, are strange and unevenly successful documents of modern culture. "Rape the Willing" compiles a lurid assortment of e-mails and explicit photographs from internet users arranging anonymous meetings to enact twisted rape fantasies--presented with cotton curatorial gloves for audience examination. The gloves seemingly protect you from the smutty contents, while more practically preserving Zimmerman’s virginal white book bindings. The less intriguing "Disney World" is an identically bound collection of snapshots from the famous theme park, which seems to rely on the weak pun produced when viewers don the Mickey Mouse-esque gloves to flip through the pages. And "Passport Remnants," a series of passport photos with their heads removed, looks equally bland next to "Rape the Willing’s" more incendiary conceit.

Works by Laura Burns, who examines the plight of marginalized women in Juarez, Mexico; Joel Kyack, who illustrates man’s struggle against nature; and Daniel Rich, who appropriates images of Gaza, Ramallah, and other crisis epicenters, are equally strong--but Material Matters’ real centerpiece is Cliff Evans’ three-channel moving image projection, "The Road to Mount Weather." Playing on a 15-minute loop in the gallery’s darkened back room, the piece is a collage of images--political, religious, and popular in nature--all found on the internet. With a soundtrack that includes applauding crowds, religious choruses, and other vague yet evocative sounds, porn stars, soldiers, politicians, and religious figures drift hypnotically through war-torn wastelands, suburban neighborhoods, and sports arenas, creating a bizarrely soothing brand of information overload.

Accompanied by a lovely full-color catalog, Material Matters is both visually arresting and timely--an excellent destination show.

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