Ridgefield

“Art at the Edge of the Law”

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

The fact that artists respond to and intervene against legal structures is not exactly groundbreaking news; the mores of legalistic bourgeois societies—and the transgression of them—have been central (if not the central) subjects of art since earliest modernism. Today even the least engagé abstractionist operates against a cultural backdrop littered with agitprop, and a number of recent and not-so-recent censorship cases still rankle. Thus, to make their show compelling, Aldrich assistant director Richard Klein and associate curator Jessica Hough faced two imperatives: They needed to focus sharply on which themes and practices “the edge of the law” might delimit, and they had to pick very strong work. For the most part, they succeeded.

The twenty-four artists and groups of artists represented have evolved in a Duchampian universe where parodic absurdity and its potential for eliciting reflexive insight is privileged over activism, either outright or of the Beuysian variety. Even the most felonious of these works was institutionalized by comforting wall text assuring viewers that “far from glorifying illegal behavior, these artists seek to illuminate the gray areas where our belief in freedom of expression clashes with the necessary control that government must wield.” Fortunately, a good portion of the art was more potent than this pallid civics lesson. Mark Lombardi’s intricate, weblike drawings charted the machinations of international finance and global realpolitik with frightening precision; Gregory Green’s functional pirate broadcasting station, installed in the museum’s attic, demonstrated that seizing the airwaves—the means of production—is possible. Witness Call Boxes, 1999–2000, by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, may have been visually underwhelming, but from its perfunctory cast-metal emergency callboxes emanated the voices of cops and the families of police brutality victims. To hear Anthony Baez’s mother testifying to her son’s chokehold death as you traced the tales of venality inscribed in Lombardi’s drawings was to experience in distilled form the immensity of American news.

Elsewhere, it was the (politicized) hegemony of consumerism that was scrutinized. In a 1993-94 project, the Barbie Liberation Organization bought Teen Talk Barbies and GI Joes, switched their voice recordings (“Let’s go shopping!”; “Dead men tell no tales!”), and planted the altered dolls in stores in inspired acts of “shopgiving.” The BLO’s mordant video mockumentary was an apt companion to the video installation Bitplane, 1999, by another underground collective, the Bureau of Inverse Technology. Flying a remote-controlled, camera-carrying toy flier in the restricted airspace over techno-industrial compounds in Silicon Valley, BIT turned surveillance on the surveillants. Copyright infringement—that is, consumerist appropriation—was the crime of Richard Prince (Playboy), Dennis Oppenheim (Disney), and the San Francisco-based musical group Negativland, whose 1991 album U2/Negativland resulted in a four-year court battle with megaband U2, documented in an installation here.

Questions of commodity and distribution were also addressed by artists dealing (with) contraband. Fred Tomaselli offered three painterly collages of pills, Green an installation of 10,000 doses of what was reputed to be homemade LSD. (In an earlier incarnation in Chicago, this piece, temporarily confiscated, landed gallerist Lance Kinz in jail.) Tom Sachs (arms dealer to Mary Boone, herself arrested in 1999 for exhibiting Sachs’s live ammunition) showed handmade guns, and Jeffrey Hatfield a functioning moonshine still; Barton Lidice Beneš’s assemblages involving his own HIV-infected blood further nuanced the idea of dangerous substances. Meanwhile, the counterfeiters—J.S.G. Boggs, Beneš in collaboration with Howard Meyer, Tom Friedman. Michael Hernandez de Luna and Michael Thompson—offered money and stamps both handcrafted and defaced.

The question of where art stops and life begins—and the corollary issue of whether art can be instrumental in subverting official systems—remains unanswerable. But these ideas circulated through this exhibition, even as the art's real-world effectiveness was denied by the museum’s framing devices and in some cases by the coyness of the artists themselves, who occasionally took refuge in the it's-only-art defense. Traces of anarchism, grassroots organizing, and political theater tantalized the visitor with hints of what might happen if artists and curators dared to believe that “freedom of expression” need not equal “harmless commentary.”

Frances Richard