Danielle Gustafson-Sundell

The cacophony of competing desires and calls to action—slogans on shopping bags and T-shirts, billboards and bumper stickers—forms a jumbled populist backdrop to our everyday routines. The appeal to aspiration behind the assault is crucial, its demands linked to signifiers of identity. In Danielle Gustafson-Sundell’s recent solo exhibition, “it’s midnight and i’m lonely,” the artist arranged eighty-nine of these sayings—rendered in a range of scruffy but vibrantly colored materials, including felt, denim, corduroy, and wool—around the gallery walls. As the statements competed for hearts and minds, their scale varied widely and their meanings were sometimes opaque. EXTINCT IS FOREVER and I’M HAVING A SIX-PACK ATTACK proclaim their allegiances directly enough; less easily placed are certain questions—IS YOUR KID IN THIS BOX? or WHO NEEDS BRAINS WHEN YOU’VE GOT THESE? Reading across the walls thus rapidly locates shortcomings of the blunt slogan as a communicator of complex values.

Gustafson-Sundell smartly handcrafts her replicas in a style reminiscent of school or church banners, perhaps subtly influenced by Sister Corita Kent’s graphic design. Adhering roughly to the typefaces of the original models, the artist admits the occasional whiff of datedness—in a slightly rounded I or the digital blotchiness of an S. The funky imperfection of the fabric letters undercuts any anthropological affect—shifts in color and fabric disrupt the meaning and voice of each phrase. These decisions, coupled with the ramshackle nature of Gustafson-Sundell’s attempts to replicate typefaces, make the texts resemble the spilled contents of a junk drawer. Presenting the texts flat against the wall, she pressurizes the rhythm, timing, and relations between words. MY PEN IS HUGE; I’D RATHER BE IN BED; SAVE THE WHALES; IF IT FEELS GOOD I’LL DO IT. As if the vagaries produced by indeterminately gendered pronouns and sly double entendres were not enough to deal with, playing softly in the gallery was a sound track of instrumental pop by Victor Thompson. Thompson’s music isn’t bad, but here its upbeat mood diffused the gathered phrases’ primary association—that of waning optimism.

Taken together, the often corny and antiquated-seeming hopes for a better life on display—BREAD NOT BOMBS—concretize the paltry state of public dialogue on a range of nagging topics: equal rights for women and minorities; the war in Iraq; poverty; drugs; sexual liberation; the environment. Concerns get sloganized and resloganized, as if the perfect bon mot could change the world. Still, instead of manufacturing an archive of mass-produced testimony or an Urban Outfitters–style ironic recapitulation of past catchphrases, Gustafson-Sundell’s project suggests a tragicomic attempt to call disparate factions to multi-party talks. Some of these lines are loud, some ironic, some outdated, some witty, some self-centered, some offensive, some earnest, some baroque, and some just plain bankrupt. But none of them really speak to one another; they were crafted as monologues—each a pedagogue and, as such, a poor prospect for hashing out the means to a better society. Staunch resistance, be it to social norms, opposing values, or common decency, is the language of these easy-to-shout slogans. In the end, neither civil accord nor subtlety is the strong suit in Gustafson-Sundell’s straight-pinned proclamations. BUT THE MAN CAN’T BUST OUR MUSIC.

Anthony Elms