Is High-End Art as Social Practice a Form of Commodity Activism?

Cheryl Pope, "Remember to Remember" (2013)
Cheryl Pope, “Remember to Remember” (2013), metal display case, brass name plates, fluorescent light (courtesy Monique Meloche Gallery)

CHICAGO — At its most rarefied levels, art as social practice seems oxymoronic. Is it possible to produce work that jars the elitist art world out of its aesthetic bliss while appearing on its sanctified white walls? Probably not. Cheryl Pope’s solo exhibition Just Yell at Monique Meloche Gallery irked me for this very reason — it is deeply entrenched in the agenda of art as social practice. In this Chicago art world moment of Cheryl Pope’s exhibition, multiple local critics have applauded this show for its boldness in “talking about gun violence in our city.” I don’t buy it.

If we want to have a real discussion about “gun violence in our city,” let’s all go to the Chicago Public Library and check out books that discuss the systematic, socioeconomic, and racial inequalities of this hyper-segregated city. To start, I recommend Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, on the lives of two boys living in a Chicago housing project, or Studs Terkel’s The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream, which gauges America’s problems not through the towers of academia but through the experiences of real people. If you have suggestions for more books to read, leave them in the comments section below! For now, I’ll try to stick to a critique of Pope’s exhibition.

But, in the case of Pope, I do believe that there’s something to be said about an artist trying to start a conversation about something that isn’t trapped in the art world’s smoke and mirrors. But if it ends in the gallery, it still becomes just another commodity — something to use and consume, to wrap up in a pretty, blinged out box. The failure of art as social practice, as it were.

Cheryl Pope, installation shot of solo exhibition "Just Yell" at Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago
Cheryl Pope, installation shot of solo exhibition “Just Yell” at Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago (courtesy Monique Meloche Gallery)

If I didn’t know the backstory to Cheryl Pope’s exhibition Just Yell, it would most definitely look like another neatly arranged, tidily constructed, and glossily presented show at this gallery, which sits precariously, or perhaps in a rather “edgy” way, between the high-end shopping district of Wicker Park and Humboldt Park, a neighborhood that has historically been a hotbed for gang activity and violence. Pope’s sculptural objects take inspiration from the classic all-American adolescent high school experience characterized by cheerleaders, yearbooks, car culture, failed notions of popularity and cute varsity patches. The shiny slick objects in this gallery act like a catalogue of golden bling aesthetics with a tinge of realness — as in, these events are based on real life. But there they sit in the gallery, once removed, a memory of a memory — something to forget, or perhaps, to purchase and then forget.

“Remember to Remember” (2013) is a metal display case with brass nameplates nailed into a black. It is a morbid reminder of real Chicago teenagers whose lives were lost to senseless acts of violence. The brass nameplates include their names, ages, and dates of death, serving simultaneously as a memorial to loss pre-empted by gun violence and a commodity of the art market, something to buy, to own. If Pope had placed this placard in one of the high schools and photographed it thus situated, then displayed that photograph in the gallery, perhaps this would have had a greater impact — more art as social activism or action, and less as social practice. Instead, it appears as a shiny reminder of how far removed the art world is from issues like this until they are presented in an easily consumable and undeniably beautiful format.

Cheryl Pope, "Strength to Love" (2013)
Cheryl Pope, “Strength to Love” (2013), rhinestones, glass tube, brass plate, display case (courtesy Monique Meloche Gallery)

Similarly in “Strength to Love,” Pope appropriates the spirit stick, a tool that any cheerleader will recognize from spirited days of shouting during high school sporting events. Taking its title directly from Martin Luther King’s text of the same name, the stick becomes a sort of “offering” toward the city of Chicago, “an incentive to raise the spirit toward equality and diversity,” according to the press release. What if this stick left the gallery and was instead twirled around the actual high school campuses, and then housed in a hallway of one of those high schools as both a gift and tribute? Occupying the depoliticized walls of this white-cube gallery in Chicago, instead the stick becomes a fetishized commodity. It probably wouldn’t stay very long if displayed in the high schools that are mostly located in crime-ridden neighborhoods. It must occupy the gallery space.

Aside from the high school signifier components, this exhibition utilizes the performative act of yelling — not cheering like cheerleaders, or shouting as a way to make one’s voice heard, but rather yelling to conjure community involvement. At times, however, this all feels like yelling into an echo chamber. In the video “K-I-D-S” (2013), a one-hour loop shows a young man named Drew, a student at Walter Payton College Prep, yelling about an end to violence. Looping on repeat in the gallery space, it becomes a performance, an experience that one can choose to have, or merely walk away from, literally turning their back on it.

“#Yell_#Yell” (2013) is perhaps the most defeatist sculpture in this exhibition, getting to the heart of art as social practice’s epic failure. Here two cylindrical black stainless steel and aluminum cheer cones stand on top of black rods, facing each other, positioned above a puddle of black paint. “Yelling” has thus become an abstract concept, coated in all black — silenced sound bites dropping in the empty space between these cones.

Cheryl Pope, "#Yell_#Yell" (2013), stainless steel, aluminum, plastic, acrylic, auto body paint
Cheryl Pope, “#Yell_#Yell” (2013), stainless steel, aluminum, plastic, acrylic, auto body paint (courtesy Monique Meloche Gallery)

“These yells ask each of us to confront a reality that is both present and absent simultaneously,” the press release notes, again talking to the viewer who presumably doesn’t ever have to deal with this type of existence, and furthermore has the privilege to understand it better through this abstracted aesthetic experience rather than the real-life, blood, sweat, and tears reality of your child possibly not making it back from school on a day like today, which is any day in America.

In Pope’s exhibition, bling aesthetics meet art as social practice, forming a charming performance of objects in a gallery on view for the privileged few who can take time to experience them, for an art world that loves its golden stars and invisible price tags even more than realities that are “both present and absent simultaneously.” That said, each of the objects in the exhibition itself is gorgeously constructed and well thought out—truly fashionable blinged out art objects for sale today to the lucky art collector who really, really cares. Three cheers for the art market.

Just Yell is on view at Monique Meloche Gallery (2154 W Division, Chicago) through August 3.

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