Bought and sold

Rampant consumerism and Iván Navarro at Tufts, ‘Some Sort of Uncertainty’ at Axiom
By GREG COOK  |  January 22, 2008
BRANDED HEAD: Hank Willis Thomas is one of the few artists at Tufts who doesn’t approach
consumerism with polite resignation.

“Branded and on Display” and “Iván Navarro” | Tufts University Art Gallery, 40r Talbot Ave, Medford | Through March 30

“Some Sort of Uncertainty” | Axiom Gallery, 141 Green St, Jamaica Plain | Through February 17
One of the laws of the art world is that once you have three exhibitions on the same theme, you can certify it as a trend. So I’d like to declare that art about consumerism is one of the æsthetic trends of our young millennium.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a pair of shows on this theme: “Cornucopia” (at Montserrat College of Art through February 2) and “Ad/Agency” (at Boston University’s Photographic Resource Center through January 27). Now Tufts University Art Gallery has opened “Branded and on Display,” a fun, bright, 22-artist exhibition organized by the University of Illinois’s Krannert Art Museum that addresses how we’re inundated with marketing and addicted to shopping, and how this state of affairs infects everything in our lives.

The artists of “Branded” are both troubled by and enamored of this phenomenon. (I can’t help wondering whether the artistic focus on business isn’t related to mixed feelings of exuberance and anxiety about how the art world itself has been awash in money in recent years.) Their primary tactic is to replicate aspects of advertising, corporate logos, and the retail experience and reflect them back at us.

Laurie Hogan paints monkeys (they feel like evil gremlins) in the colors and with symbols of products found in her home. Ai Weiwei vandalizes an ancient (or so the sign says) pot by painting the Coca-Cola logo around it. Amelia Moore photographs a sea of college kids dressed in matching orange Illini gear at a University of Illinois stadium. Minimalist sculptures by Donna Nield and Clay Ketter mimic the look of furniture and store displays.

Pierre Huyghe offers an affecting digital animation of an alien anime elf girl with big blank eyes. The artist, it seems, bought the rights to the character from a Japanese firm that invents them for the cartoon industry. The cartoon, now existing only for this brief artistic purpose, laments her existence. It’s like some woeful Philip K. Dick yarn.

As the artists present it, all this business and economic stuff is alien and insidious and poisonous, and we’ve been brainwashed. Maybe that’s why they all seem politely resigned. Only a few attempt anything that could ruffle feathers. Michael Blum offers a rambling, earnest video documenting his trek to Indonesia to find the poorly paid workers who made his Nike sneakers. Hank Willis Thomas’s 2003 photo Branded Head shows the cropped profile of an African-American man, the side of his shaved head horrifyingly, hauntingly branded with the Nike swoosh. He implies that black athletes who serve as sneaker pitchmen are akin to slaves.

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