Weekly Update – Social commentary at Fleisher Challenge 1

This week’s Weekly has my review of Wind Fleisher Challenge 1 at Fleisher Art Memorial. Below is the copy with some pictures. More photos at flickr. And see our interview with Tim Belknap here.

Timothy Belknap
Tim Belknap’s hand-built ice cream truck with its pineapple greenhouse on wheels at the Fleisher Challenge.

With the exception of shopping mall artist Thomas Kinkade, most contemporary artists have a complicated relationship with beauty. The artists of the first Wind Fleisher Challenge are no exception: None of their works could be considered beautiful by traditional standards.

Timothy Belknap
Solar panel on top of ice cream truck. The artist likes working with other people, letting them contribute what they’re good at and like to do.

But beauty is not always the point in contemporary art. The point is more often a message about an urgent issue or feeling. What’s felt here is anger and resignation. Whether it’s Cheryl Harper’s ceramic caricatures of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Timothy Belknap’s post-apocalyptic fairy tale installation or John Slaby’s hand-painted cigarette packages, this work is fueled by social and political concerns.

Timothy Belknap
FM Transmitter, last in line in this little post-apocalyptic parade.

Belknap’s installation is a theatrical tableau featuring three full-scale fantasy vehicles: an ice cream truck, a mobile greenhouse growing a pineapple and a striped ball on wheels (that doubles as an FM transmitter). In one corner of the room a skeleton in farmer’s clothing kneels in a flower bed while being caught in headlights from the vehicles. On a wall, a small photograph of a child with a horror mask is a macabre family portrait.

Timothy Belknap
Pineapple power. Belknap grew the plant and is hoping it will flower soon.

The very loose narrative, says the artist, is about Mr. Bolt, an ice cream truck entrepreneur at the end of the world and his conflicted relationship with children whom he loves during the day and fears at night. Mr. Bolt is a puppeteer and his truck is a hybrid vehicle, part solar and part diesel. His pineapple plant will feed the children and the FM transmitter—its logo is emblazoned with the words “do not give up”—plays a wan and reedy acapella rendering of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Do not give up might might be the theme for this slippery narrative that’s a visual art cousin of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Belknap – who does not know the McCarthy book but did refer to Mad Max in a discussion we had, built the ambitious set piece himself (with the help of some friends).  The young artist (Tyler MFA 2006) has a dark sense of humor that reflects the times.

Cheryl Harper's The Teaching Gore, 2007. stoneware, 31x12x12"
Cheryl Harper’s The Teaching Gore, 2007. stoneware, 31x12x12″

Iconoclastic stoneware figures by Cheryl Harper lampoon political leaders and politics. In her artist’s statement Harper says she’s disappointed by people in Washington who could be role models but aren’t. Hillary Clinton is skewered as a scary smiling sphinx; her husband Bill is half rockstar/half businessman and far less noble than the dog next to him; Al Gore is a barefoot messiah and born-again preacher of ecology.

Cheryl Harper
Bill n’ Buddy. 2008. stoneware, dog leash, approximately 27x20x10″ (two figures)

Republicans get theirs too, although the piece focuses mainly on Democrats. There are also two large landscape works, but these pieces are less successful at representing the artist’s anger.

John Slaby
Two of John Slaby’s painted cigarette packages.

Most people wouldn’t look twice at an exhibit of 37 real cigarette packs on a wall. But John Slaby’s trompe l’oeil painted and constructed cigarette boxes are virtuoso works that slow you down and sucker you in. Slaby’s not a smoker but he picks up discarded packs from the street for his models. Whatever the work’s about—anti-smoking or anti-litter, perhaps—these painted pieces raise thoughts about how good design sells bad things.

John Slaby
John Slaby, painted cigarette packages

Wind Fleisher Challenge 1.
Through Nov. 22.
Fleisher Art Memorial, 719 Catharine St.