“I Wuv You”

From Murphy Brown to Dan Quayle, from Daniel P. Moynihan to the Urban League, everyone who’s anyone has their own righteous representation of “the family.” The radical right appropriates the family to serve as the symbolic bedrock of Western civilization; the radical left analyzes it as the penultimate text of social dysfunction. Not a lot to choose from for most families (no matter their configuration), who are too busy keeping track of grocery bills to spend a lot of time thinking about how much damage this burden of representation is wreaking on their everyday lives.

“I Wuv You” is one family’s attempt to turn the representational tables on the powers that be and on the master narratives that support their power. Composed by Melba Price, Bruce Tapola, and their seven-year-old daughter Oakley, “I Wuv You” was dominated by a 20-foot mural of a pre-Neanderthal mom, dad, and baby executed with just enough tongue-in-cheek pathos to reveal anthropological explanations of the nuclear family for the pathetic self-serving fictions they are. Then there’s the family tree that’s so confusing it ridicules the notion of genetic transference, and the wall of 49 portraits that describes the “family of man” as a process of coming to terms with difference rather than a state of euphoric oneness. There’s a section with a fill-in-the-blank “family” game (Manson [blank], [blank] business, [blank] jewels) that suggests the wide variety of communal living situations, while at the same time it destroys any hope of structural coherence. Finally, there’s a large group of Oakley Tapola’s paintings that speak more about her experiences in school and with Walt Disney movies than about any imagined innocence.

But “I Wuv You” is much more than a smart deconstruction of family representations; it’s also a complex combination of work by three different artists who call themselves a family. On the face of it, Bruce Tapola’s social satire, Melba Price’s lyrical sadness, and Oakley Tapola’s colorful fantasies are an unlikely combination,but somewhere within their collaborative flow, artistic difference became familial possibility. That’s the secret of “I Wuv You”: under the cover of representational insurrection it reinvented the possibilities of family life not as new symbolic system but as collaborative work. What we are left with is less an idea of what a family might look like than a glimpse into the ephemeral qualities that collaboration of any sort engenders: loyalty, trust, shared labor, communal identity.

Vince Leo