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Sign of the Times at Monique Meloche

by Gretchen Holmes

If I could afford to collect, I would liquidate my assets and invest the cash in objets d’art that challenge the sordid workings of commodity fetishism governing the culture industry—and I’m not being facetious.  The contested boundary between culture and commerce can be deadly boring, it’s true; but when preachy didactics about art world hypocrisy give way to ambivalent conversations between the idealism fueling art’s critical, ideologically resistant aspirations and the capitalism fueling its sustainability, the friction reminds us why this boundary was imagined in the first place.  Sign of the Times, Monique Meloche’s group show featuring Kim Beck, Máximo González, Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, Michael Patterson-Carver and Carrie Schneider, exudes this kind of ambivalence, representing the Global Economic Crisis through its hysterical cultural symptoms.

Máximo González "Animal Freezing Machine"

Máximo González "Animal Freezing Machine"

It’s hard to say which piece navigates most gracefully through its simultaneous critique and embodiment of culture as commerce, but González’s collage-mural assembled with fragments of devalued currency navigates those waters with a ferocity that is hard to ignore.  The mural presents a Rube Goldberg contraption that snatches up animals (the menagerie is populated by rabbits, birds, zebras, whatever cut from obsolete paper money) and runs them through a series of obscene-looking conveyer belts and chutes until they are transformed into ice cream cones and extruded from what can only be described as a severely traumatized penis.  González’s machine plainly accuses globalized capitalism of raping nature, enslaving the vulnerable, destroying developing nations’ hopes for economic viability, and debasing the integrity of all mankind just so we can have an ice cream cone…but, damn, it’s a beautiful object!  Those filigreed fragments of devalued third world currency with their intricate, intoxicating little patterns and González’s careful appropriation of their colors, shapes, and lines are infinitely captivating.  This would make a nice addition to your illustrated Marx-Engels Reader, but it would be even nicer above the sofa.

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung "In G.O.D. We Trust"

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung "In G.O.D. We Trust"

Equally mesmerizing is Hung’s video installation In GOD We Trust (GOD stands for Global Obama Devotion).  Think of Hung as John Heartfield 2.0: each of his video’s seven digital animations collages images of our favorite political figures with religious iconography, corporate logos, and clip art—it’s like Hung threw the New York Times, a stack of coupons, and a World Religions textbook into a burlap sack and shook it until they successfully procreate.  This might sound like something you’ve seen before, but Hung’s attention to detail (manifest in dozens of brilliant touches like the AIDS ribbon affixed to Obama’s crotch in The Crossroads of Conflicts or the sign reading “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” in Obamacita) and the kinetic intensity of each image enliven Hung’s cynicism, turning critique into pure fun.

Each piece in Sign of the Times holds its own, presenting an engaging perspective on culture and economics, but it’s most exciting to look at this work as part of a site-specific conversation.  Each of the artists is from a different city (Schneider is the only Chicago artist) and works in a different medium.  It’s about as diverse as you can get in Monique Meloche’s scaled-back new space at Division and Leavitt.  Where this Noah’s Arc curatorial approach could digress into a contrived potpourri of political voices, the selection of work illuminate a sort of collective anxiety—an uncertain, melancholic attitude toward the art object in this era of economic panic—that amplifies each artist’s political voice.  Hung’s video animation, In GOD We Trust, and its caustic irony are reined in from absurdity by Patterson-Carver’s ambiguously earnest watercolors; Schneider’s conflicted displays of consumerism moderate the urge to read Patterson-Carver’s drawings of protesters carrying signs reading “We Need Work” and “We Need Healthcare” or Beck’s Everything Must Go, a series of hand-drawn window signs for an imaginary going-out-of-business-sale, as Dorothea Lang for the cool kids.  This is, of course, how work in a well-curated exhibition should behave: by creating a dialogue resulting in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts; however, it’s rare to encounter such a cohesive selection of objects in a commercial gallery group show.

“SPACE!”

Kim Beck “SPACE!”

A few years ago, I took a class on art as political intervention, and every discussion boiled down to the same question: “How do you make political art that doesn’t suck?”  Dialogue on Chicago Art Map/Art Talk Chicago frequently gravitates towards the same issue, and the problems at its core seem to be the narrow scope of political perspectives at play and the capacity a visual artist (compared to, say, a human rights lawyer or elected official) has to affect political discourse.  While Sign of the Times is not an activist maneuver, it is a compelling example of how art can engage in political dialogue and still engage as art—that is, as aesthetic engagements that provoke through imagination and uncertainty.  And Sign of the Times’ politics aren’t just effective because they’re ambivalent; they are effective in their ambivalence as it narrates an ideological tipping-point.  Who knows how long this moment of collective hesitation will last?  Sign of the Times is definitely in the right place at the right time: surrounded by Wicker Park’s stilted gentrification, the show’s anti-capitalist catharsis is inherently bound to its celebration of art as aesthetic commodity and gallery as small business.  What would it mean to buy González’s assemblage of obsolete currency or watch Hung’s video on your plasma screen?  Instead of dismissing this challenge as hackneyed and naïve (being the sophisticated skeptic you are), consider the sign in Monique Meloche’s window announcing “SPACE!” against the countless “For Rent” signs decorating neighboring buildings.

Editor’s Note: you can find additional discussion on this topic in Jeriah Hildwine’s Politics is Like Trying to Screw a Cat in the Ass.