SAN FRANCISCO — About twenty years ago, Sega released a video game titled Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. As a young lad, me and my friends spent hours in front of the television playing as Michael Jackson as he scurried through dark alleys killing bad guys with high kicks and fedora hat throws. The Stage 1 background music was “Smooth Criminal” and it created the perfect ambience for a pop crime fighter saving kidnapped children from urban horrors.
I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law, the newest exhibition currently on view at San Francisco’s SOMArts Cultural Center, plays out much like Moonwalker: artists doing high kicks as an attempt to, as the exhibition states, “challenge, question or circumvent the law through their work.” There were no actual song-and-dance numbers, but the show read as a group of self-assured undiscovered pop stars stretching their vocal chords and vying to be the next American Idol. I love American Idol, so I was thoroughly entertained by I Am Crime, but I only watch American Idol clips on YouTube the day after it normally airs so I can fast forward through the singers that suck or rather, are too predictable. How do you challenge the law? How do you question the law? How do you circumvent the law? What are you going to sing tonight?
I wouldn’t have walked into the exhibition believing that overused challenges, questions and circumventions to “law” would be abundant, but Corbett Griffith’s Porsche 944 with spinning amber lights titled “Mediator” immediately set the stage for the show and all I could hear in my head was Ryan Seacrest saying, “This is American Idol!”
When I was in college, I was in a fraternity and we used to use spinning car lights, like those found in Griffith’s “Mediator” or police cars, as a way to let the underage crowd that there was gonna be some serious partying up in here. Ten years later, I see that the crazy light strategy is still in effect and during the opening reception, there was pumping techno music playing. Party People!
A crime show wouldn’t be complete without a wall covered in stenciling. E. Claire Acuda Bandersnatch, Jeremy Novy, Jessica Hess, and Nite Owl’s “Untitled” (2012) field of text and imagery reminds us that guns, hand cuffs and nude bodies are major symbols of the concept of crime. It also wouldn’t be complete without a pile of documented stuff. Critical Art Ensemble’s “Seized” is a sculptural mound that “documents all the work and household objects that were confiscated from Steve Kurtz’ home after the FBI raid in May 2004. It also shows all the trash that the FBI left behind.”
For me, clichés in an art show are not problematic. When I go to a Renaissance portraiture show, I expect to see creepy oil paintings of really pale Italians staring back at me. When I sit down to watch American Idol, I except someone to break down in tears and say, “I’ve worked so hard for this.” I Am Crime has to have graffiti, spinning lights and a pile of seized stuff from one of the art world’s most fascinating contemporary criminal stories. In a show filled with criminal activity, my joyous moments came when unexpected mediums delivered the blatant concept.
Susie Cagle was a popular figure at the opening as her “Occupied Oakland, An Illustrated History” (2011-2012) was admired for its timely documentation and technical craftsmanship. The various-sized watercolors on paper have an old-school Looney Toons cartoon studio feel that brilliantly contrasts a subject matter that has made national headlines for its unorthodox behavior. The rich colors, classic compositions and simple statements uniquely hold attention far longer than any video in the exhibition.
Always playing on institutional critique, Michael Zheng’s “Wall-Floor Positions by Bruce Nauman” was an incredible break from the law of the government to the law of the art world. At first one might think they are simply watching Bruce’s video, but as the video picks up resonance with grainy lines, the shaky camera reveals abrupt black borders around the picture and one realizes that this isn’t Bruce’s recording, but a recording of the recording! How scandalous! The work seemed like a nice summation of the entire exhibition: an original work of an original work where the medium is the message.
American Idol and criminal activity don’t seem to have any end in sight. Pop stars may come and go but there is always someone right around the corner willing to step into the spotlight and pop culture cannibals like me hunger for the next big bite. I’ve never been much of a criminal and most of the typical antics in I Am Crime remind me why I choose to stay at home watching American Idol. When something like a watercolor entices me more than any slick digital photo or HD video, I’m happy to experience the power of an art exhibition and not the typical mediation of a newspaper, magazine or nightly news hour.
I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law, curated by Justin Hoover, is currently on view at SOMArts Cultural Center (934 Brannan Street, Soma, San Francisco) until April 19.