General view of the “Duck and Decorated Shed” exhition at Nurture Art. (photo courtesy Nurture Art) (click to enlarge)

A small coconut tree grows in the corner of Nurture Art. Simply titled “Coconut” (2009), and created by artist Gudmundur Thoroddsen, the leaves seem to reach towards the skylight. A certain twist makes it art — a few of the leaves are painted pink. It resembles one of Matisse’s colorful trees come to life. A plain tree might boast a simple elegant beauty, but Thoroddsen’s concoction proves that an injection of pink can be such a guilty visual pleasure.

Theresa Himmer, “Reykiavik Waterfall (The Mountain Series)” (2009), digital video loop (photo courtesy Nurture Art) (click to enlarge)

Like this tree, many works in this show, titled Duck and Decorated Shed, start with a bland surface and cover it with visual pepper. Theresa Himmer’s set of videos from 2009, The Mountain Series, zoom in on these humongous sequins that are adhered to the sides of unremarkable buildings in Reykjavik. They glisten with a strange glow. Himmer also pulls some basic film tricks that involve playing with the speed of the film. The end result is that this footage resembles claymation. Once again, nature looks cooler when it’s tweaked.

Architect and theorist Robert Venturi and his colleagues coined the term “Decorated Shed,” to discuss how decoration in architecture could amp up what otherwise looked as boring as a shed. They were particularly looking at these boxy and windowless casinos in Las Vegas. The casinos’ saving grace was the thousands of shinning lights sprinkled lavishly across their exteriors. Katie Cercone, the show’s curator, found this characterization to be a provocative metaphor for this collection of artworks that probe our romance with embellishing what would otherwise be bland.

Gundmundur Thoroddsen, “Cocunut” (2009) (photo courtesy Nurture Art) (click to enlarge)

But this impulse to adorn can also backfire — especially in the lives of women. Other art pieces in the show confront that pressure to sport posh and girly clothes, to conceal every blemish with makeup, and to diet down to a waif’s waist. Many works critique how a woman’s desirability is derived more from her artificially produced appearance than the depth of her personality.

A few of the works take the gross over-the-top route. Lauren Kalman’s “Hard Wear (Oral Rims)” (2006) is a digital video loop that depicts teeth covered in gold. The idea sounds cooler than it actually looks. Bodies can be subjected to such nasty and artificial procedures in the name of cosmetics.

In Jessica Stoller’s “Untitled” (2006) digital photograph, a woman wearing a pink horse costume collapses in a tacky pink room. Our heroine apparently just gorged on plastic candy. All the pink hues clash with each other. It’s intentionally garish to indict how unrealistic and fake these notions of cutesy and girly can be.

Jessica Stoller, “Untitled” (2006) digital photograph, (photo courtesy Nurture Art)

To explain the other half of the show’s title, “The Duck” is another architectural category that Venturi and his colleagues invented. It was inspired by a Long Island building that built to resemble a giant duck. Some casinos such as Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas are likewise just one big silly symbol — explicitly designed to grab the eye. Just as some women get reduced to one big silly sex symbol.

Nida Abidi’s paper-mache “Cinderella Tank” (2009) (photo courtesy Nurture Art) (click to enlarge)

Nida Abidi, “Cinderella Tank” (2009) is made from paper mache. At first glance, it just looks like that familiar Cinderella carriage whisking the (fake) princess off to the ball. The long gun shaft is neatly obscured by the lacey design and pastel colors. The small scale conjures tender and precious associations. It’s chilling how the daintiness can override the tank’s symbolism.

Narcisster’s 2009 video “Burka Barbie” also conceals a gun with glitz. A woman with a creepy Barbie mask sports various brightly colored burqas, purses, and other accessories. The suggestion is that all women’s apparel is just as constricting as the burqa. “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash lightens the mood as the soundtrack, and reminds us of the West’s silly fascination of the “East.” It’s all very stylized and visually entertaining, but at the end, the naked Barbie goes Terminator and shoots the viewer with guns embedded in her body. Mission accomplished.

Is ornament a crime? Yes, when it disguises cruel intentions. In some works, glamor literally hides something harmful. The posh and accessorized Barbie turns ballistic — quite unexpectedly. The gun shaft on Cinderella’s carriage looks so harmless because it’s pastel. Other works probed how pretty looks can dehumanize women by hiding their personalities. Cinderella’s carriage is rightly fatal — because the happy ending indoctrinates girls with a dark message about ornament. The fable’s moral is that glitzy clothes are the best way to hide your flaws and attract a worthy man. Cinderella did not enchant Prince Charming by wearing comfortable shoes and keeping it real. Decoration can be sweet at the start but bitter in the end. Like a moth drawn to flame, tourists pulled into glittering casinos that will empty the wallets, or a woman attracting a man for all the wrong and vapid reasons … ornament can cause more trouble than it’s worth.

Duck and Decorated Shed is a group exhibition curated by Katie Cercone, featuring artists Emily Harris, Jessica M. Stoller, Lauren Kalman, Mary Kate Maher, Gudmundur Thoroddsen, Matt Stone, Theresa Himmer, Narcissister, and Nida Abidi. It continues at Nurture Art (910 Grand Street, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn) until Saturday, October 23, 2010.

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