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By Michael E. Miller
Before Twitter and Facebook, there was Gillian Wearing's Signs. In her now-classic series of works, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992-1993), the British artist deployed simple handwritten notes on paper allowing her subjects to express who they were.
In these straightforward photographs, Wearing stopped passersby on busy London streets bombarded by advertising and mass media images and asked them to make signs communicating what they felt.
Her subjects then posed holding their signs with messages ranging from political to personal views.
Some of the male strangers scrawled, "Queer + Happy" or "I'm Desperate." One man confessed, "I've thought about becoming a gigolo, but I'm worried about the health risks." Another couple held up a sign wishing for world peace.
Wearing's deceptively simple works are on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) as part of "The Reach of Realism," a provocative group show featuring 21 international artists and an artist collective working in a dazzling array of media that assails the mind.
The artists in the exhibition use a broad variety of strategies to address the increasing fusion between daily life and popular media, says the show's organizer, Ruba Katrib, MOCA's associate curator.
"Today it is becoming more and more difficult to strip through the layers of a media-saturated culture where people are consumed by the Internet and reality TV," Katrib observes. "The artists in this exhibit question what it means to be making art at a time where things are not always as they seem. They approach images from different perspectives to reveal and examine elements of our society that society might not see in sincere and at times ironic ways."
Katrib chose Wearing's work as a springboard to the rest of the show, as a way to link an earlier generation of artists that criticized the media's growing influence on society to artists working today in a complex climate of media domination they can no longer escape.
Judi Werthein tackles the unavoidable elephant in the room via a sly installation titled Cosa (Thing), consisting of "air of Miami in shape of an elephant formed in China," according to a gallery catalogue. Her inflatable sculpture is crammed into a walled-off space, not unlike three tons of pachyderm stuffed into a one-ton bag. The folds and creases of the boxed animal bubble through the wall's crevices, but spectators can never fully experience the blown-up beast. Werthein has created the poetic piece, which seems to grunt and hiss behind the wall as it inflates and deflates rhythmically, as a biting commentary on the construction of imagery and the conditions under which such a thing can exist without being visible.
Norway's Lars Laumann has created an hourlong video titled Shut Up Child, This Ain't Bingo, loosely shot with a vague documentary style. The film follows the travails of Laumann's friend and fellow artist Kjersti Andvig, who traveled to Texas to collaborate with a death row inmate, Carlton Turner, and fell in love with him.
While staying in Texas, and living in the trailer of a fanatically religious woman, Andvig undergoes a conversion and comes to believe Turner will be resurrected after his death. Following Turner's execution, Andvig begins to question if her relationship with the inmate and spiritual awakening were real or imaginary. Laumann's understated approach to the subject matter brings to mind the tawdry banality of reality TV programs that beggar suspension of disbelief.
The UK's Phil Collins subverts Spanish-language telenovelas in a half-hour-long film featuring Mexican actors in a story based on a Jean Genet play. Soy Mi Madre weaves a tale of two maids who conspire against their snooty, rich patrons. In one memorable scene, an insufferable harridan returns from vacation and takes her servants to task. She bawls out the maids, complaining her house smells like a pig sty, before waving them off with a bony paw to fetch a glass of water and a Valium for her nerves. As another maid appears suddenly, the addled matron of the manor melodramatically sniffs, with the overacting typical of the popular Latin American genre, that her skin has been crucified during her trip and then skulks away. Collins's deadpan execution evokes class contempt with a flair that makes viewers think they're watching the real deal rather than an expertly staged art piece.
For his video opus, Iceland's Ragnar Kjartansson warbles the same snippet of a song over and over like a hiccupping songbird. In God, a 30-minute piece, the artist channels an Atlantic City lounge lizard replete with a full orchestra projected in a room curtained off floor to ceiling with cheesy pink polyester drapes. The Nordic version of Rudy Vallee repeatedly chirps, "Sorrow conquers happiness," in varying intonations as if on an endurance test. In his snazzy monkey suit and pompadour, Kjartansson questions whether repetition will draw him closer to or further from an ephemeral truth in our era's echo chamber of manipulated reality.
Olaf Breuning employs epic humor in Collage Family, a visually cluttered work on a sprawling, free-standing golf-course-green wall. The Swiss artist has culled a Pandora's box worth of sordid imagery from the Internet to create his version of a nude postnuclear family complete with mother, father, young daughter, and dog. The figures are rendered with scraps of images freighted with raw scatological references verging on porn, including obese naked women, beer-swilling nuns, blow-up dolls, bespectacled hamsters, and tattooed vaginas in a mondo extreme kaleidoscope of wacky scenes reminiscent of Hustler's bizarre photos of the month or a Ripley's Believe It or Not! display.