February 17, 2013

Art Review: 'Flat Earth' scores visually, falls a bit flat on message


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“Untitled” by Pincho (Spanish).

Courtesy photos

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“Link and Luster” by Cassie Jones (American), acrylic on duralar.

Additional Photos Below



WHEN: Through Feb. 23

WHERE: Rose Contemporary, 492 Congress St., Portland


INFO: rosecontemporary.com; tetraprojects.blogspot.com

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."

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Additional Photos

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“Decommissioned” by Kenny Cole (American), gouache on paper.

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“Triumph of the Vanishing Point” by Jeff Badger (American), ink on paper.

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“Tierra Plana” by Ruina (Spanish).

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“Hitler” by Ze Carrion (Spanish), acrylic and spray paint.


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