Americans have a love-hate relationship with Wal-Mart. Some believe it's the best thing since nylon pantyhose, big-screen TVs and Ziploc baggies. That you can find all three products under one large, sprawling flat roof not only signals one-stop shopping but also the megastore's generosity. As an institution, it is a watershed in the unfolding of a peculiarly American form of consumer democracy. Insomuch as we buy (pardon the pun) the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen's notion of "development as freedom," it expands democratic participation in our own country. It transforms the have-nots into haves, making them participants in an "ownership society," while the haves become have-mores, acquiring ever more at a discount. At the same time, there are those who see this economy of convenience as but a form of bogus democracy. While promising the American dream to shoppers, Wal-Mart's internal structure, its low pay and penchant for hiring without benefits throw a wrench in the machine of upward mobility for its workers.
Regardless of what camp you fall in, our collective relationship with Wal-Mart is a productive one. It provides fodder for lively political discourse while telling us who we are. We are Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart is us. America is a Wal-Mart nation.
Guest-curated by C. Sean Horton, Twang: Contemporary Sculpture From Texas, now showing at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary, riffs on this ambiguous yet identity-forming relationship. Much like past avant-gardes, from Impressionists to protagonists of Pop!, the artists of Twang reveal the utopian underbelly of what otherwise seem to be hopeless aspects of everyday life. And they do so by way of the logic of inoculation, or what Plato called the pharmakon--that which is both remedy and poison. They enter the host, mirror the disease that threatens destruction, alter and destroy it, forever making the host safe from it. If Wal-Mart is the disease, these artists mimic it, break it down and give us pleasure through the rarefied yet transfigured fragments and ruins of its commodity playground. Theirs is a kind of mission of maintenance and subversion: They maintain the idea and possibility of the standardized product while subverting its lackluster and shoddy homogeneity. Akin to those streamlined and inventive objects designed by members of the Bauhaus, their sculptures are prototypes for a world of mass-produced irony and splendor--the would-be world of a what-if Wal-Mart.
Case in point is Kyle Wadsworth's "Custom Carrying Case for Domestic Plant" (2004). Wadsworth has designed a suit-cum-trombone case custom-made for travel with your African violet or poinsettia, depending on the season. Talk about convenience! It has a circular glass mini-rotunda about two inches in diameter on top for sunlight and wheels on the bottom for rolling rapidly through airports. It's the perfect product for lonely-heart types who find themselves more attached to plants than people. Nancy Granahan and Justin Kidd have made interactive pieces that involve paper and writing. With "A Perfect Tan (on a scale of 1-Tan)" (2004), Granahan placed free postcards in plastic receptacles on the wall. On them are images of a voluptuous, scantily clad model with tan lines in the form of jewelry and stockings. Kidd's work, "Out Box (First Iteration) or, an Even Happier End to Kafka's Amerika" (2003), poses an aluminum and Styrofoam makeshift box à la the postboxes in Prague adjacent to similarly makeshift postcards. Kidd asks visitors to write on the paper stamped "wish you were here" and drop it in the box. Perhaps more overtly in keeping with the Wal-Mart-pharmakon logic than the other works, Riley Robinson offers two giant lawn-chair orbs. He has constructed each of them, together appropriately titled "Wal-Mart/K-Mart" (2004), out of bona fide lawn chairs connected by white plastic fasteners.
The goals of the curator, Horton, are twofold. First, he seeks to show how in the current moment the medium of sculpture has come to designate more generally the object status of an artwork. Those once provocative questions of whether a given sculpture is in the round, on a base, cast, molded or modeled have been replaced by an overarching and more general object-reflexivity. That is to say, these objects are sculpture and only sculpture because they refer to themselves as objects generally speaking and not as specific works of sculpture. The line between being sculpture and an object is finely, and most poignantly, rendered in Chuck Ramirez's two digital photo prints "Godiva 1 & 2" (2002). The only thing keeping these piercingly executed flat images of empty gold chocolate containers from not being solely photographs, or even paintings, is the fact that they are raised ever so slightly off the wall upon which they are hung. The shadow-casting two inches between wall and picture make them objects rather than flat planes.
Second, Horton negotiates what it means to be a Texas artist in the current moment. Neither belligerent nor dogmatic about his position, Horton pushes the envelope of Texas regionalism in the arts. Horton explains, "As predicted, the international language of art is now the predominant form of art-making in Texas and abroad, leaving many to wonder if the old, favored stereotype of the Texas artist was ever a reality at all." No dummy, though, Horton doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater: He doesn't forsake the campy, singular and Goth Texas for something more globalized. He has included many works in the show that comment well on Texas tradition. Playing on the proverbial Texas bronc-buster, there's the split-screen video in the corner, Teresa O'Connor's "Bang" (2005), showing two young cowboys in a duel on two small television monitors. Hills Snyder's yellow-smiley-faced cross titled "This Land Is Your Land" (2004) captures the overlap between certain strains of Christianity and the ideals of Manifest Destiny (not to mention the smiling round-headed price buster of Wal-Mart fame). Derrick Saunders invokes once again, but in a refreshing way, that which has umpteen lives here in our own back yard of Dallas--the expressive drip c. 1957 of AbEx renown. Saunders literally stacks paint, plastic and wood in "The Long Skinny" (2000-2004), transforming one painter's stuff into a linear, plastic and painterly faux wedding cake.
There is only one way in which the show apes Wal-Mart to its detriment, and this is with installation. The individual pieces are installed rather ploddingly as though truly the stuff of a grocery store. The intellectually ground-shaking Minimalist trope of one-thing-after-another gives way to an almost generic and benign feeling of objects for sale. The work of Twang is overall so powerful--inventive, humorous and whimsical--that it doesn't matter that the installation truly feels like Wal-Mart. What wins out in this instance is the collective force of the individual objects and Horton's attempt to stage a revolutionary mock-theater of the banal through them.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.