Artificial Food Coloring | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Artificial Food Coloring 

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Rebecca Morris

at Ten in One Gallery, through October 12

Melanie Smith

at Randolph Street Gallery, through October 12

Piper

at Randolph Street Gallery, through October 12

By Mark Swartz

Recently, in the New York Observer, old guard critic Hilton Kramer sniffed, "Pop corrupts, and absolute pop corrupts absolutely." Rebecca Morris upends this proposition, pretending to paint pure abstractions but using a palette corrupted by the most detestable depths of commercial product design and further corrupting the work by adding stickers and doodads. One picture includes a puffy blue sticker, another two Little Caesar mascots, and a third features two cheap gold charms.

"Rebecca Morris is down with brown," writes Hamza Walker in the essay distributed at Ten in One, which is showing nine of Morris's oil paintings. She's also down with orange the color of orange-flavored beverages, blue the color of Popsicles, and gold the color of golden arches. In short, Morris is down with the color schemes of fast foods and fast-food restaurants. Giving her pictures titles like Mayor McCheese and Hamburglar guarantees that people will get the idea. Although she paints mere blocks of color, allowing the excess paint to drip seductively off the edge of the canvas, rather than renditions of the food products themselves, Morris doesn't seem to want anyone to see them without thinking of fast food.

But does she want us to get hungry or nauseous? I think she wants us to get nostalgic. In all likelihood she grew up eating this stuff, preferred Quarter Pounders to her mother's cooking, and maybe even celebrated a few birthdays in the McCheese party room. She got older, however, went to art school, experimented with vegetarianism, and read Noam Chomsky. She started to regard fast food served in brown, orange, and yellow packaging and buildings as cruel, corporate, and cholesterol laden. Then, as time went by, maybe she lightened up a little. Maybe she allowed herself an Extra Value Meal one evening and found she loved it. She goes back every now and then when she needs something to lift her spirits, but she doesn't make a habit of it. The paintings represent her effort to assimilate this experience into her art.

We take for granted the corruptive influence of convenience food on the national health. A steady diet of fast food will make the junk-food junkie overweight and create chemical imbalances that lead to self-loathing, feelings of despair, and sometimes violence. Morris reminds us that a steady diet of visual junk can corrupt--and has corrupted--the national imagination. She dares to partake of that corruption without abandoning the forms of high art, abstractions painted in oils.

Melanie Smith's Hiper-Consumismo-Tropicana Mix II With Video Game, an installation in the project space of the Randolph Street Gallery, points to where Morris could have wound up if she dared--if she'd opted for absolute corruption. Smith is down with orange, way down. She's turned the room into a giddy, delicious, nauseating riot of orange, including every manner of synthetic orange product: an orange-clad mannequin, orange toys, a video game with orange aliens, and some video goldfish, for that natural-synthetic conflation. From inside the installation you look out at the world through a sheet of translucent orange plastic, and the world looks ugly. In this work Smith ponders what makes orange such an irritating color, whether one instinctively gags on it or whether cultural biases are at work. She tests whether too much of an ugly thing can be beautiful; the answer is no, but it can be fascinating.

But enough about ugly. We live in a world replete with garish oranges, a city where the brown, orange, and gold decor of fast-food chains is easy enough to find without looking in art galleries. Can we talk beauty now, or is it too embarrassing? Piper's installation at Randolph Street Gallery, Anxious Moments, catches you off guard with its beauty--and it isn't an old-hat kind of beauty but a new thing that's still immediately recognizable as beautiful. That beauty has something to do with Piper's colors--muted red and smoky black--but for the most part it comes from her sophisticated, original use of materials.

I wouldn't be surprised if some other artist has already made use of bang caps, the strips of red paper children spool into their cap guns that Piper mounts in 31 old picture frames as Anxious Moments. The associations with childhood, the hint of violence, the acknowledgment that toys aren't any fun unless they imply something mysterious and forbidden--all these ideas have been available for a long time. The decision to capitalize on the metaphoric potential of caps strikes me as obvious. Or maybe Piper has done her job with such mastery that, after the fact, their use seems inevitable.

An ongoing series of exploded and unexploded caps--lined up in rows or set out in snippets and sandwiched between the glass of old frames--Anxious Moments hangs on two adjoining walls of the gallery, off in a corner. The installation derives its poignancy partly from a sense of sheer futility: the thrill of caps is supposed to come and go in the instant they're detonated. As soon as the echoes of their tiny explosions die down and the scent of the gunpowder fades, the paper can be disposed of. Instead, Piper preserves the useless and dumb mementos with the sanctity that should be reserved for portraits of her grandparents' grandparents. Even though she knows it's hopeless, she tries to prolong the childhood thrill, and by association childhood itself.

I purchased one piece of Anxious Moments last month after seeing the installation at the Smart Museum as part of the University of Chicago's MFA group show. (As pieces from Anxious Moments are sold, Piper makes new ones to replace them, so that the total number is always 31.) At the Smart, Anxious Moments stood out from the jumble of paintings and installations, an almost snotty declaration from Piper to her classmates: go ahead and agonize over your MFA projects, but I can conjure beauty with some discarded picture frames and toy artillery I picked up at Walgreens. At Randolph Street Gallery, Piper's work stands more on its own, and it's more melancholy. The anxiety of Anxious Moments surfaces.

Piper told me that when she was in school one of her teachers cautioned her against what he perceived as her innate sense of beauty. He wanted her to ugly things up a bit--and I think that's good advice for some artists. Unearned beauty can arouse suspicion that the artist is living in a dreamworld, oblivious to the basic ugly facts of life. In a 1994 book of prose poems also called Anxious Moments, Slovenian writer Ales Debeljak declares, "The children at your feet play with dominoes made from the bones of animals." In Piper's case it's obvious that the beauty has lived through the ugliness, and survived.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Mayor McCheese" by Rebecca Morris/"Anxious Moments" by Piper.

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