Margaret Welsh

Chicago Project Room

In Margaret Welsh’s art, popular culture is the opiate of the masses. The photographs, video works, and installations in a recent show couched her cunning plays on pop culture’s soporific side in wry retransmissions of modes and messages from years past. The works’ retro ambience clearly riffs on a distinct period of American cultural history, loosely definable as the ’70s, but the artifacts she teasingly evokes have analogues in contemporary culture, suggesting that the needs they seek to fulfill—needs of release and escape—have never left us.

Pure Moods (all works 1997), a neon piece placed in the gallery window, declared its soothing title in upbeat yellow and blue script. Its name derives from a compilation album advertised on late-night television in which the ’70s sounds of soft rock deliver their form of numbing transport. Yet rather than mockery, there’s almost a wistfulness in Welsh’s evocation of this material. Similarly, the reference to Bruce Nauman’s neon pieces from that same period both mimics his aesthetic and charmingly deflates his authority. In 50 Uses, Welsh used a back room of the gallery for an update of Andy Warhol’s 1966 Silver Clouds. Instead of his helium-filled, metallized-polyester pillows, she used three machines that spewed an unending stream of gently cascading bubbles—tiny, perfect orbs all scented with one of fifty commercially available essential oils that promise various responses. (Number 44, for example, is concocted with eucalyptus, peppermint, tea tree, bergamot, and tangerine oils, and claims to “stimulate the senses.”) The room became a site of effervescent, holistic glee, even while it prompted reflection on the culture that would provide remedies “to chase away the blues” and “assist in calming frazzled nerves”—and what end such products might serve. This subtext of popular culture as narcotic is central to Welsh’s thinking: it intimates that life as actually lived has always been in need of such systems of release. The commodification of spiritual and physical transcendence is to Welsh both fascinating and poignant.

In Self-Portrait as a Higher Life Form, Welsh transforms herself into a Vulcan, Star Trek’s fantasy of humankind purged of emotional excesses. For Vulcans, meditative equipoise and efficient certitude result from the absence of passion and intuition. Welsh’s blank gaze, Vulcan hairdo, Federation-style shirt, and pointed ears and eyebrows perfectly embody this TV-mythical being. The obvious artifice of Welsh’s stick-on ear appendages and the cursory clipping of her real eyebrows, however, indicate more than scrupulous disguise, highlighting the degree to which the figure is a construct. Welsh’s critique resides in the fundamentally tawdry and clumsy trappings of TV’s promises: if only it were so easy.

In a video work, Expecting to Fly, Welsh blends snippets of Enter the Dragon (in which Bruce Lee executes his dance-like martial arts maneuvers) with dreamy sequences of abstract patterns culled from a self-hypnosis video. When Lee begins to smash a maze of mirrors, the shifting patterns on the tape begin to accelerate. This work exposes the less-innocent side of images from mass media: that transport from reality entails a kind of symbolic violence. While Welsh’s source material seems like kitschy fun, her investigation of culture as anaesthetic becomes an incredibly evocative performance.

James Yood