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CHICAGO — In a group show at Packer Schopf Gallery, three artists explore ideas or activities that are central to American identity: nature, political protest, and sports.
Geoffry Smalley takes pages of old illustrations of the American West, such as Indians posing in their battle gear, or cowboys seated on a rearing horse in an idealized landscape, and then he adds elements that refer to team sports. So, for example, in the background behind the riding cowboys you see the dome of a modern sports arena rearing up over the trees. A picture of a Native American is altered to show him wearing a necklace made of football helmets and a fake arrow-through-the-head, like your typical “crazy fan” at a tail-gating party. The jarring additions are painstakingly rendered in acrylic or pencil to match the colors of the source material, which makes the pictures seem joky and sorrowful at the same time. The idea is a simple one: given that many American sports teams refer to the mythos of the American West in their team names, what would it look like if you went back and turned some iconic images into the banal celebrations of the modern sports fan? Given the current controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins football team, Smalley’s work suggests that this confrontation between myth and meaning is still alive today.
If you’ve never heard of scrimshaw before, it’s a form of folk art whereby men carved images and words into bone, ivory, or metallic objects. It is most often associated with navies, as a way for sailors to while away the long hours away from home. Artist Michael Dinges uses the scrimshaw technique to engrave modern materials and objects of value, such as a full-sized whaling boat made from wood and vinyl siding, or the lids of old laptops, or the backs of iPods. He then scrapes or brushes black pigment into the lines to give them the look of old carvings on bone. The combinations of text and images often seem to be part of an obscure lexicon drawn from fairground art, tattoo art, and quotations without context, as in the Dead Laptop series, which feature exquisite, dense delineations of animals, insects, and the scrolling, serif-heavy fonts of nineteenth century calligraphy. In his Domino Theory/Dead iPod series, the phrases seem to have a more directly political aim, aimed at protesting our contemporary indifference to the uses and exploitation of human labor. The point is made, perhaps a bit heavily, by inscribing such sentences on products made by Apple, the unparalleled modern purveyor of objects whose beauty obscures the ugliness of their manufacture.
Victoria Fuller’s work, accurately given the collective title Nature2, is similar to other material in the show in that the wider social-political objections suggested by the pieces are fairly blatant: Appropriations of native myths are silly! Capitalism bad! We are destroying nature! Well, maybe that’s a little unfair, particularly in Fuller’s case. Her sculptures combine found objects and hand-made objects to make things that look like the cross-sections in an agricultural manual: a cube of earth with creatures embedded in it, and pipes leading out of the cube and upwards to above-ground areas, where there are images of factory farms and agrichemical plants, and little hard-hatted workers digging up trees.
I said “like a cross-section,” but these pieces are in three dimensions, so you can walk around most of the sculptures and see something else that Fuller has placed inside her cubic dioramas: an extremely lifelike rat, curled up with its eyes closed, a snake’s skeleton, an egg, worms and wriggling things galore. I got the message pretty quickly: everything is interconnected, and we’d better watch out that we don’t ruin it all with our pesky human meddling. But I soon became absorbed in the intricate stories that Fuller was constructing out of her tenderly assembled objects, the balance between the narrative content and the tight geometry of the sculpture, and the skill with which she makes a sculpture out of so many pieces and yet balances them all together, seemingly in mid-air, like an expert juggler.
There is actually work by a fourth artist, Karen Savage, on display in the basement of the gallery, but her collages and photograms are uninspired and stand somewhat apart from the themes that preoccupy the other three artists.
I left the gallery feeling a little bit preached to, but also thinking how it’s not a bad thing for art to make us to reflect on the continuities between the past and the present, labor and consumption, and the tensions between humans and the natural world.
Michael Dinges, Victoria Fuller, Geoffry Smalley, and Karen Savage continues at Packer Schopf Gallery (942 West Lake Street, Chicago) through July 12.