Pat Courtney

Hillman Holland Gallery

For several years, Pat Courtney has been reproducing images and text from dictionaries in paintings and photocopies that expose power relations inherent in the language and culture. With her latest work, Courtney has branched out in medium and content, adding to the dictionary pieces several Xeroxes from other sources, a sound installation, a Styrofoam wall piece bearing the word “Ozone,” and an installation of View-master© viewers showing sites of development, demolition, and pollution of the physical and intellectual environment.

One of the dictionary pieces in this show is the key to the artist’s method and intention: Iron Lung, 1988, an 8-by-8foot, latex-on-canvas painting of a dictionary page, with a large, blue border whose color suggests institutional wall paint. The cropped dictionary page isolates an iron lung illustration and the surrounding words: “ironical,” “irradiation,” “irrational,” and “ironhanded” (a remnant of this last word’s text defines it as “unfeeling, cruel”). The juxtaposition of breathing, illness, environmental disaster, and cruel irrationality in a cool, bland border is jarring—and in Courtney’s work, implied criticism is not hidden behind heavy veils of jargon. Two other pieces physically demonstrate the general panic being induced by environmental decline: in There will be an additional 1.4 million cases of skin cancer, 1988, the words from a magazine article’s original text deteriorate to a rough scrawl as they descend the paper. The text of an old physics textbook page depicted in And with the hand, 1988, begins to lose all the letters except the o’s surrounding a cryptic image of a machine that blows smoke rings, giving the canvas an eerie, melodramatic quality.

The View-master© installation extends the sense of falsification and displacement into the materials of construction. The industrial shipping box on which the viewers are placed is filled with Styrofoam packing peanuts and covered with a clear acrylic top. The 3-D images in some of the blue plastic viewers depict what another piece, a small, framed Xerox, describes: the use of Styrofoam as fake stucco on the exterior of new condominium and townhouse developments. Other viewers document the demolition of buildings that had been the homes for artists and art organizations; still others, sexist images on billboards. The installation, whose materials are implicated in the thoughtless destruction of the urban and natural environment, is chilling and fun at the same time, sort of a latter-day carnival’s chamber of horrors.

Courtney’s point is made most succinctly in Ozone, 1988, a Styrofoam relief. In spite of the tire marks preserved in the surface, the object impersonates corporate signs and corporate art (especially since it is mounted on a wall painted with Courtney’s institutional blue), and as such hints at the separation of art from real politics, even as it announces its own message. Nevertheless, the multiple ironies of Ozone, in which the word is negatively gouged out of a material whose production is known to cause the depletion of the gas referred to in the title, offer an interpenetration of politics and art that is much more substantial than the familiar sarcasm of recent “commodity” art.

Glenn Harper