I have very mixed feelings about “This Flat Earth / Esta Tierra Plana” at Rose Contemporary in Portland.
On one hand, it’s an exciting concept show featuring works by artists from Maine and Spain.
Yet the show takes its lead from Thomas Friedman’s book “The World Is Flat,” in which the free-trade advocating author supports commerce-led economic forces of globalization that are — he argues — whitewashing traditional and geographic international divisions.
But when you dissolve such divisions, you dissolve cultures — especially the quieter, less aggressive ones like, say, Native American cultures.
If you want to see powerful painting here in New England about technological globalization, visit the Dartmouth College library frescos painted by the great Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco. “The Epic of American Civilization” provides a controversially brutal view of the effects of colonialism and technological imbalance on indigenous cultures.
While Orozco’s achievement is mind-bogglingly impressive (it’s one of the important works of art in America), it’s not what you would call pleasant or pretty. It’s all power — in its ugliest and most dangerous forms.
While I agree with Orozco’s and Friedman’s observations, I don’t like their conclusions.
From their work and names (graffiti/street art pseudonyms), it would seem the Spanish artists of “This Flat Earth” are more familiar with Orozco than their Portland colleagues. That the Spanish artists work under aliases like rHo, Rubicon1 and Ruina leads to more questions than answers. That might be the point, but it helps stymie any confident conclusions about the show.
What is most frustrating, however, is the missed opportunity for meaningful dialogue. Broadly, the Spanish artists’ work has a critical political thrust absent from most of the American work. Typical is Pincho’s “LAISSEZ FAIRE ET LAISSEZ PASSER, LE MONDE VA DE LUI MEME” — an impressively drawn steamroller with the phrase sewn into the paper (all the works are on standard A3 paper).
Pincho (a nose-shrunk/ truth-telling version of “Pinocchio,” perhaps?) acts like a flat-earth free-trader if you read the work literally, but the brutality of the mindless machine is an ironic clarion warning.
With a few exceptions, the Americans neither dig deep nor display the outrage broadly expressed by the Spanish artists.
Cassie Jones and Irina Skornyakova, for example, participate with abstract works. While there is a possible flat-system reading (think Peter Halley) of Jones’ very hip black grid with blue dots, it’s a stretch. The same goes for Badger’s work, a house being wind-blown to bits and disappearing towards a vanishing point.
Badger’s piece is well-executed and interesting by itself. But while it might reference the digitizing of our visual world or the collapse of our formerly domestic cultural space or other such ideas, it lacks the sharp snap of persuasive political art.
Not all the Spanish art is intellectually edgy. One particularly entertaining piece is a graphic-novel-style, eight-panel cartoon of a chef taking the globe and flattening it into a pizza crust. It’s fun, but a bit simplistic.
Kenny Cole’s data-labeled drawing of a Spanish submarine piloted by gold seekers (tiny men pointing with a thought bubble of gold), however, succeeds in putting our nations on common, militaristic and imperialist ground — complete with a shared cynical motivation. I particularly like Cole’s flirtingly smart allusion to Thomas Dolby’s “One of Our Submarines” from his album “The Flat Earth.”
RBN’s savvy piece shows the globe pixelating/simplifying itself to a uniformly low resolution. Oxymoronically, it pretends not to be subtle.
The Spanish artists often adopt an aphoristic approach shared by conceptual, mural and graffiti art. In addition to Pincho’s piece, for example, Ruina’s self-consciously reductive CMYK image with stylized skull and crossbones reads: “PLAIN WORLD / COLORFUL PIRATES.” Another labeled image reads “DON’T READ IT / IT DOESN’T MATTER.”
Ze Carrion’s “Hitler” in acrylic and spray paint features a mostly pen-drawn close-up of the surprised face of Charlie Chaplin. The genocidal Nazi leader is presented as a sweetly goofy tragic-comedian. The letters of “Hitler” appear as ransom-note magazine cutouts, which is just enough to incite the insidious undercurrents of cultural imperialism.
“The Flat Earth” just doesn’t speak up enough for itself. While plenty of the works are witty or well-executed, the only messaging that gets across is the simplest, literalist illustration of a flat world. And when the metaphor is lost, the subtlety frustratingly dries up and blows away.
Then we are left to wonder: Does this group of (presumably) graffiti/mural artists represent what’s going on in Spain? Or do we have to withhold any broader insights?
Hatched by Jeff Badger and Jeff McCreight (a.k.a. Rubicon1, an ex-patriate Portlander in Spain), “This Flat Earth” is exciting, and its energy and conceptualism are commendable. Moreover, the fact that such shows are so commonplace (this isn’t Badger’s first; I did one 15 years ago between NYC/Santa Fe/Caracas; Maine Marine Peter Buotte took Maine art to Iraq; etc.) reinforces the flat earth idea.
But I don’t think the art or the ideas get far enough toward their potential.
In the end, Friedman’s free market economic/commercial philosophy fails to make the jump to cultural self-awareness, and the cultural divide of “This Flat Earth” either reflects that or fails to overcome it. Maybe Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded” would have hit the kinetic tipping point — not only does it add culture to commerce, it sounds like a party.
Just flat, after all, is kind of flat.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: