Call me Ishmael. Some days ago—never mind how long—I visited an art exhibit of work purporting to be a critique of "Big Oil." Now, this "Big Oil" is nearly the same business that was hunting the whale and rendering its oil to light the world of the nineteenth century. Now, we love oil, we buy it, we use it, we can’t live without it. But the irony is that "Big Oil" has somehow become the "Great White" that everyone is hunting. This is the subject of Heidi Cody’s second show at Roebling Hall.
Actually it’s the logos, the public faces of these corporate leviathans, that Cody is examining. What more promising material could one ask for? The logos of major businesses are some of the most striking and memorable images that can be produced, and why not? They’ve been designed by the best teams in the world, and no cost was spared in their production and test marketing. The subversion comes in the slicing, the "extractions" that the artist makes from the originals, and the rendering of them into neutralized "new" configurations that, though recognizable, still achieve antonymous states as independent declarations. Stylistically, there is also a confluence of the two disparate art movements of the sixties, namely Pop with its fetishism of consumer products, and minimalism, a formalism that used primary forms, industrial materials and serial production.
Cody makes use of other aspects of these movements, too, as in her use of scale. Though not the size variety of an Oldenburg, or the enlarged visual field of Newman, by bringing these units into the gallery she places them in a more direct human context of scale. "Usually you’d see [the signs] twenty feet in the air. Getting them to look good close up when you’re face to face was the trick," stated the artist. There are plenty of analogous points that have political and societal references, for example the predominance of red, white, and blue. Also there is a pronounced frontality and balance in the original signs that would imply stability and reliability.
Cody’s cropping seems to zoom in on those parts with diagonals, unbalanced curves, and little notches of color that hug corners or edges. When these are placed in round formats, as in "BP Amoco" (2003), there is a further distancing from the source, and they begin to assume a separate identity as if to become iconic symbols in their own right. "ExxonMobil" (2003) is a large rotating double-sided box suspended from the ceiling. On one side is the unmistakable double "X" in red, white, and blue. On the other side is the perfectly centered red "O" of Mobil, isolated and reduced to a massive target, perhaps a statement of America’s vulnerability, or the implied aiming point for our harpoon.
In a brief glimpse these works might appear mechanically perfect, but there are variations like the crisscrossing of the spray-gun strokes that reveal the painter’s hand. In "Sunoco" (2003) the deep transparent blue-violet seems to have pooled in the inverted trough of its thick line. The blacks are especially vibrant. Its shine and light fastness have a unique quality that seems to command the space where it’s used with an all-together different authoritative presence which the transparent colors can’t muster. Though these sculptures relate to painting, they also depict totally different characteristics. Because they are illuminated from the back, it is probably better to view them in low lighting, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to show them in a totally dark gallery—think Barstow at midnight.
In a conversation with the artist, I was relieved to find out that the social-economic content of the work that was alluded to in the press release seemed to her to carry less significance. In recent years the question of the primacy of beauty or morality has been raging in certain rarefied quarters of the art critical establishment. The school of "eat your spinach, children are starving" conceptual art, thankfully, appears to be collapsing of fatigue under its own weight. Who says art that’s good for you can’t look good too? With this body of work, Cody, though cognizant of the "intransigent, imposing, crude commercialism" of these companies, seems also good naturedly to be extending the classic subject of the American landscape as depicted by no lesser artists than Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and Ed Ruscha.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.