By Noel Black
It's amusing to think of all art as "landscape art."
Whether it's yet another rendering of a lighthouse on a rocky cliff, or a voyeuristic photo of a dead man with a gaping, bloody hole in his neck from a self-inflicted suicide wound, all art shows us versions of the worlds we inhabit, physically, mentally and (gulp) spiritually.
Not that we wouldn't all like to live in a lighthouse on a rocky cliff, or to wake up every morning and gaze at the soul-rejuvenating reflection of a mountain in a placid tarn, but "landscape" painting all too often fails to address the world we actually live in.
Call me cynical, but today, as we're on the brink of war with Iraq, I couldn't contemplate such tender little slices of life -- lighthouses, mountain lakes -- without imagining a bright orange mushroom cloud in the background or thousands of dead floating fish.
Of course, for those of you who enjoy ponies and romantic pictures of Indians or cowboys, there's no shortage. But for those of you who want to see creative responses to the bewilderingly unnerving and ideologically indecipherable landscape that most of us are forced to inhabit, there's the Fine Arts Center's newest exhibit, Lateral Thinking: Art of the 1990's.
Like the '90s, the works and artists represented in Lateral Thinking are dizzying in their variety of ethnic backgrounds, styles, mediums and approaches to equally various subject matters.
Let's start with Roman de Salvo's "Power Maze with Sconce." Creating a maze out of electrical conduit tubing, light switches and transfer boxes, with a trinity of pathetically small amber light bulbs at the top, de Salvo, like many other artists of the '90s, meaningfully introduced construction materials to the aesthetic dialogue. A gorgeous monument to overkill, "Power Maze" reads like an absurd map to our overcomplicated relationship with an irrelevant god. De Salvo's work near the beginning of the show alludes pointedly to the overall tone of the show: the impenetrability of meaning and origin in an overly complex world.
On the wall opposing de Salvo's circuitry, for example, hangs Lisa Yuskavage's "Manifest Destiny," a soft-focus rendering of a busty, naked young woman leaning into a looming, menacing, phallic column of simultaneously ancient and futuristic nondescription. The powdery, pastel clouds defy the sacrificial implications we glean from the virginal nosegay our young maiden offers to the gaping jaws of old whatever-it-is atop the column. Spooky. Sexy. Weird.
Moving on to video, Tony Oursler brings his trademark face projections to "Don't Look at Me," an amorphous doll being crushed by an overturned chair. Using the doll's white blob of a head as his screen, Oursler projects onto it an angry woman's face that taunts the viewer with a continual "Don't look at me!" and "What the fuck are you looking at?" Aside from being alarming, charming and clever, "Don't Look at Me" aptly dramatizes our cultural obsession with embarrassment and the video image of self as a confirmation of identity. The doll's emptiness speaks for itself.
Also using video while addressing our international preoccupation with surveillance, Italian-born Fabrizio Plessi's "The Caryatid of Poverty" brings post9/11 feelings about immigrants and travel into a haunting, if not unintentional metaphorical perspective. Inspired by the refugees from the Balkans, Plessi's column of suitcases atop a television displaying luggage X-rays from an airport security check is homage to the constantly uprooted poor of the world. But the piece can't help but reference our contemporary fears around travel and security as well.
Amazing how unshocking Damien Hirst's gaping, bloody necks and wrists look now that we have C.S.I. every Thursday night to indulge our pathologist's craving for the truly carnal details. Happily, even without its shock value intact, the photos along with the surgical tools on the table before them in "When Logics Die" still invoke a very genuine human sadness and pity.
Chinese artist Zhang Huan brings us self-portraits with racks of pig ribs. James Drake shows us the transsexuals and transvestites who live on the metaphorical border of gender and the literal border town of El Paso, Texas. And Fred Tomaselli brings us a pot-leaf collage in one of his always-lavish patterned visions of drug culture.
What brings this entire show together, ultimately, is how completely disparate and unrelated everything seems to be. But when placed in the context of the 1990s -- dawn of the Internet and the invisible economy and infinite information it spawned, multicultural free-for-alls and post-everythingism -- the discohesiveness of the show makes perfect sense.
Politics and worldviews aside, many of these works are conceptually brilliant, moving on a purely aesthetic level, and evidence that the creative spirit and its incumbent voices still stir forcefully no matter how discombobulated our self-consuming cultural landscape may become.
-- Noel Black