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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Apathy’s Ugly Twin

Art Review

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Call me a contrarian, but when I perceive mass movement in one direction I usually gravitate toward the other. There's something eerie about public consensus. I hope (but am not entirely convinced) a similar streak of dissent broods beneath the self-consciously seditious surface of UW-Milwaukee Union's newest exhibit (through April 3). Without that glimmer of hope I'd have to dismiss their Justseeds Cooperative show as a noisy and all-too-earnest mass of rebellious statements targeted indiscriminately at ready-made causes.

The exhibition brings a sense of urban dereliction into the rarefied gallery setting-nothing new, except for the theatrical manner in which it's done. The front segment of the gallery, bordered by a barbed, cut-out paper fence, bears the murky feel of a subway station. A gash in the fence allows access to the main body of the gallery, which gives off an air of arid dejection. A broken, grime-streaked concrete overpass inhabits the space, with a fake car teetering over its edge. Instead of disconsolate youths skulking in the shadows of this urban promontory, cardboard wolves pick their way through the wasteland. A lone bear gazes at visitors from a height. The paper-thin animals and a vine of roses lend the exhibit a fabled aura. However, the subtle play between urban and fictional lore is largely blotted out by the bevy of slogans screaming at you from posters plastered to the mock-concrete pillars, and hippie-ish, Earth-hugging catechisms scrawled across the high windows telling you to "turn fear into love" and "dream more." The posters speak out against territorial occupation, racism, worker exploitation, capitalism, highway construction and just about everything else. Here's apathy's annoying twin, cloying concern, rearing its ugly head.

Then again, that may be the point. Perhaps the exhibit is intended not to inspire rebellion but sow doubts about the kind of blanket-fashioned activism that banks on our complicity but ultimately snuffs out all feeling. An image of an index finger pointing upward with a caption that reads "buff this" corroborates this point, bringing to mind a scene from the 1950s cult movie The Wild One. When asked what he's rebelling against, the main character answers "whaddya got?" This, and the fact that the authors remain anonymous, suggests a subtle disavowal. The artwork somehow remains aloof and unclaimed, like the prowling cardboard wolves.

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