New York

James White/Tim Sheward

BRITISH DUO James White and Tim Sheward “embrace the delusion perpetuated by the worship of false icons.” In their ongoing project of simultaneously critiquing and reveling in manufactured pleasure, White and Sheward have poked fun at brand-name consumerism—the “worship” of products like the Nike and Adidas sneakers and workout clothes worn by the almost life-size bendable figures in the 1997 installation Plastic Picnic. Recently the artists have turned to the “false icons” of the tourism industry: In an exhibition in London last winter, they showed Untitled 7, 1999, a small palm tree sculpted from Blu-Tak, an adhesive used to hang posters, and Gift Shop, 1999, an irreverent miniature version of Le Corbusier's church at Ronchamp.

In “Paradise,” their second solo show in New York, White and Sheward focused exclusively on the palm tree, a dominant symbol in British tourism. The palm holds a particular fascination for the Brits, who have to go to warmer dimes to see this “exotic” vegetation in its native environment. The centerpiece of the show was a group of six large black-and-white photographs of palm trees in various settings from which any picture-postcard potential has been drained. In AMP (all works 2000), the corporate initials on an office budding (the “logo” of big business, producer of the falsest of false icons) compromise the exoticism of the nearby palms, which seem small and spindly in comparison to the looming towers in the background. Path shows a large palm on the grounds of an island spa, but the black-and-white processing makes it impossible to tell if the sky is sunny or overcast, and the cropping leaves out the details of the luxurious surroundings. The pictures were shot in Italy and Australia but could have been taken anywhere at all within a certain latitude—Southern California, for example, where the ubiquitous palm tree is just something that makes the backyard messy when the wind blows.

The photos do hint at that kind of banality with their gray tones and snapshot-like casualness. But White and Sheward go further, playing with the palm as a vacation-brochure symbol of “optimism and escapism.” The sculptural component of this show, Garden, consisted of four stylized, laser-cut Plexiglas palm trees. Arranged in 3 small grove in the center of the gallery, standing shiny and translucent green on their Formica bases, the trees evoked a display from a travel agency or gift shop. Garden functioned as a signpost to the wrong side of paradise—plastic, disposable, empty—in case you didn't realize yet that that's where White and Sheward were directing you. (The six photographs, after all, belong to a series titled “Fantasy and Disappointment.”) Island, which shows a small palm in the middle of a hotel pool, and After Sun, a negative print of the tree from a different angle, spell out the contradictions built into the bourgeois idyll. There's no way to tell the real paradise from the construction—yet isn't the very notion of “paradise” just that? Your ideal vacation is just a tidy, all-inclusive, pre-packaged, empty nonadventure. The quasi Marxian message comes through loud and clear, and if White and Sheward didn't deconstruct leisure as thoughtfully as they do, “Paradise” would collapse into a one-liner.

Meghan Dailey