Dreaming of America at Ronald Feldman

Erika Rothenberg’s white letters stand out on black board with the week's schedule at Ronald Feldman. It starts off Monday with a meeting for abused spouses and finishes Saturday with a lesson in “parenting your clone.” Don’t miss the mid-week informational session on finding love on other planets.

Ida Applebroog Yes. Thank you. I am Fine., 2003 Painted plaster statue, 16 × 13 × 17 1/2 inches
Photo: Zindman / Fremont

But the sign fails to mention that visitors better have good walking shoes if they want to see all of American Dream, which fills Ronald Feldman’s considerable galleries and spills over into two floors of temporary exhibition space. Work by well known artists, including Jenny Holzer, Leon Golub, and Andy Warhol gives the exhibition a certain level of prestige. High quality work from a range of lesser-known artists fills it out. Videos, installations, and animation accompany sculptures, paintings, and prints. American Dream’s mix of styles and media is sometimes confusing, but always interesting.

Like Rothenberg, the show’s artists generally have a good sense of humor. This is certainly true of Eduardo Kac, who contributed “Free Alba! (Ann Arbor News),” a strange and engaging artistic science experiment. Kac sent his bunny Alba to a French laboratory where scientists implanted a jellyfish gene that causes Alba to turn green under ultraviolet light. “Free Alba! (Ann Arbor News)” documents people reading about Alba in various international newspaper articles that usually feature pictures of green bunnies. It’s hard to resist a chuckle, looking at Kac’s large photographs of readers in hair salons, tattoo parlors, and weight rooms. With his green bunny, Kac takes aim at cosmetics in contemporary culture.

Sitting on a white pedestal just in front of Kac’s work, Tom Jezek’s miniature shopping cart picks up “Free Alba! (Ann Arbor News)”'s lighthearted mood. The cart is piled high with consumer products of the artist’s own invention, packaged in multicolored plastic. Products include “Golden Days," “Special Effects,” “Stealth, Destiny,” and “Clear Path.” In America, suggests Jezek, intangible or personal qualities can be purchased along with Skippy peanut butter and Head & Shoulders shampoo.

Some artists in American Dream reveal the influence of Jeff Koons in their work. Koons is the master of kitsch as art, with a gift for making an ironic virtue of flagrantly artificial aspects of consumerism. Unfortunately, the work of his proteges in the show generally falls flat, rendered superfluous by the superficiality it attempts to critique. Tom Otterness’s little bronze moneygrubbers entitled “Free Money,” “Last Penny,” and “Big Thief,” are good examples of this. Otterness’s figures, often on view in the New York City subway, are ugly cartoon characters, and in American Dream their rounded bodies, hunched above oversized coins, are drab and impotent reminders of the ugly side of consumerism.

Ida Applebroog’s plaster bust of Michael Jackson, entitled “Yes. Thank You. I am Fine." is equally unconvincing. The piece is likely meant to indicate the rift in celebrity culture between public and private. But Applebroog’s disengaged treatment of the features and the gaudy paint with which she covers the plaster smooth over the sculpture’s message. Applebroog’s work succumbs to the artist’s superficial approach, becoming superficial itself. This unfortunate Koonsian sculpture fails to differentiate itself from popular culture.

Some more mature work in the show does justice to the complexity of American dreams. Diane Arbus’s photograph of a young African-American with his pregnant Caucasian wife was subversive when it was taken in 1965. Today, it’s a reminder of America’s ongoing struggle to unify diverse cultures. Leon Golub’s painting “Two Black Women and a White Man” presents, in large format, two seated women who seem threatened by a standing man. Its narrative suggests the cultural divides that continue to frustrate dreams of unity.

Korean artist Nikki S. Lee offers a more optimistic vision of integration. Lee is a disguise artist who infiltrates American subcultures. In her trio of enlarged snapshots in American Dream, she presents herself as an old lady, a skater punk, and a stripper. Her immersion in each group is so complete that, without some knowledge of her working methods, the viewer might never pick her out. Lee dances half-naked beside her stripper friends, stands hunched and wrinkled at a bus stop amid the elderly, and poses with punks fully equipped to ride a half pipe. Lee’s photographs speak to the intimacy that can develop among small groups of people within a potentially alienating larger culture. The pageantry of Lee’s work leaves the viewer wanting more.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the strong statements of many of its artists, American Dream is sometimes incoherent. Although this might be impossible to avoid in a show of work by more than fifty artists, some of the exhibit’s pairings result in glaring contradictions. Perhaps the most outstanding is Pepón Osorio’s giant pink-furred cats “Fear and Denial,” situated just across from sixteen-year-old Anne Joseph’s photograph “September 11, Brooklyn,” which won her the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers Award. The former surreal and childish, the latter surprisingly mature and realistic, their placement is disruptive. Such juxtapositions make it hard for the viewer to see what the show is trying to say about American dreams.

Organizational missteps aside, however, the variety of work in American Dream gives some sense of its subject’s breadth. The ambition alone of this sprawling show makes it well worth the viewer’s time and effort.

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