Artists who push legal limits these days are pretty much guaranteed a spot on the evening news, whether it’s Tom Sachs getting Mary Boone arrested for exhibiting live ammunition or Renée Cox giving Giuliani palpitations with a nude self-portrait as Jesus. Such provocative works have rarely been treated as more than tabloid fodder, but with the Internet and digital media spawning daily court battles over intellectual property and privacy, there’s never been a better time for a show that deals with the substantive issues of artists versus government.
In the unlikely setting of suburban Connecticut, the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield has rounded up a world-class selection of artists who flirt, often intentionally, with “criminal” activity. Don’t expect to find any “Sensation” stars here; curators Jessica Hough and Richard Klein deliberately skew the focus away from “indecency” and toward more complex, stimulating territory. Despite an official sanction obtained from Ridgefield’s police chief, this thoughtfully organized show will make you wonder where, exactly, the line between artistic impulse and crime is drawn.
The show opens with a beep as you enter the museum through Sachs’s metal detector, Involuntary Guestbook, wondering if it’s the gold bracelet or the pocket change, and feeling the same inexplicable guilt that airport security officers always manage to inflict when they brandish an electronic wand and ask you to please step aside. Sachs is a master of complicity, and his homemade, pseudo-patriotic guns featured elsewhere in the show are no exception: The viewer whose presence validates these objects as works of art feels like the driver of a getaway car.
And speaking of getaway cars, Janice Kerbel shows you exactly how to rob a London bank, literalizing Constantin Brancusi’s comment that “a work of art should be like a well-planned crime.” After casing the joint at 15 Lombard Street, she worked out an incredibly thorough plan involving armored trucks, distracting explosions, and three separate getaway routes to a villa in rural Spain. Her diagrams, photographs, and maps are an open invitation to engage in grand larceny (although, thus far, no one has been sufficiently inspired to act on it). Meanwhile, Fred Tomaselli creates a different kind of temptation: His paintings feature pills coated with layers of clear resin. The drugs, of various colors, shapes, and sizes, form alluring psychedelic patterns that clearly allude to their hallucinogenic effects. Tomaselli’s work could be construed as a nose-thumbing gesture at drug laws, a mockery of the pharmaceutical industry, or simply an attempt to tantalize viewers, and it’s this ambiguity that makes it so enticing. His paintings are also the most formally playful works in a largely conceptual exhibition.
The stories of legal action that resulted from several works are an engaging distraction, and reinforce the show’s all-American vibe—after all, what could be more American than the lawsuit? Dennis Oppenheim’s sculpture Virus, which features Mickey Mouse imagery in a comment on Disney’s infectious marketing, caused the corporate behemoth to cry copyright infringement. Likewise, Richard Prince’s corrupted Playboy bunny logo merchandise prompted a letter from Hugh Hefner’s lawyers to the Whitney Museum. In most cases, even the victorious plaintiffs come off looking pathetically like Officer Krupke in West Side Story, mocked effectively and ceremoniously behind their backs. So do the law-enforcement officials who busted Gregory Green’s reproduction of an LSD laboratory, complete with a recipe from The Anarchist’s Cookbook, when it was first exhibited in 1995. Tests eventually revealed the potions to be harmless, but Green has since incorporated documentation of the bust into the work, which makes the police look as ridiculous as Giuliani ranting about elephant dung.
A few of the works aim for meaningful transgression, but devolve into cute practical jokes. A group calling itself the Barbie Liberation Organization swapped the voice-recordings of Teen Talk Barbie and Talking G.I. Joe and returned the tampered products to stores. The BLO then created a fake news broadcast documenting the reactions of surprised children and parents, which is entertaining but more concerned with gender stereotypes than legal issues. Likewise, Michael Thompson’s and Michael Hernandez de Luna’s fake postage stamps, featuring slogans like “Hunt Deer” and “Separate Church and State,” some of which were actually canceled by postal workers, are witty but don’t carry much weight.
In a more effective example of fed-baiting, the collective Ubermorgen’s [V]ote-Auction project created a Web site where average citizens could buy and sell votes, commenting on the corruption of campaign finance. (Of course, the site was shut down and legal action threatened.) It’s surprising that the curators didn’t feature more Internet-based work, given that some of the most subversive recent art falls into that category; collectives like etoy and tmARK, members of whom collaborated with Ubermorgen, deserve a look in their own right. Silicon Valley does factor—if indirectly—into the Bureau of Inverse Technology’s Bitplane, a remote-control toy plane outfitted with a video camera and sent into high-security sites in the Bay Area. The resulting footage is shown as a video installation, with spliced-in statistics relating to Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and other corporate Goliaths. Bitplane‘s odyssey, however clumsy and futile, strikes an inspirational chord of dissent.
The same can’t be said of the disproportionately large part of the exhibit devoted to money, in various counterfeit incarnations. There are five works from JSG Boggs, well known for his deviously altered renderings of bills that he attempts to pass off as real in the name of art. Tom Friedman has cut-and-pasted 36 dollar bills to look like one, rendering its value uncertain. By the time you get to Barton Lidice Benes and Howard Meyer’s bale of shredded U.S. currency, you get the point, and for once the green stuff loses its appeal. These artists may be critiquing the arbitrary appearance of legal tender or the role of money in the art world, but one or two works would have been enough to make the point. Strangely, Boggs is the closest the curators come to the topic of art forgery, which could inspire a whole exhibit in itself. Such shortcomings, however, are easily overlooked in an otherwise fascinating and relevant show.
“Art at the Edge of the Law” acknowledges the legacy of ’60s and ’70s counterculture, but stresses in the catalog that “these works contain a revolutionary element in highly unrevolutionary times.” It may be true that today, riots and protests are comparatively few and far between, but the “establishment” operates in more subversive ways, controlling information access and invading privacy through new technologies. The artists in this show point the way toward a different sort of revolution, encouraging us to question authority and take the law, creatively, into our own hands.