San Francisco

Michael Arcega

Walking a tightrope between the nerdish and the savvy, Michael Arcega’s current exhibition at the de Young Museum maintains an amiably critical position. Its title, “Homing Pidgin,” immediately signals the artist’s penchant for puns, which he applies to hot-button topics like a kind of witty conceptual makeup. In this selection of sculptures, vinyl window treatments, and displays of objects borrowed from the museum’s notable Oceanian collection, Arcega cleverly turns artifacts into multilayered jokes. He takes aim, as in previous projects, at aspects of colonialism—in particular at the knowing use of cultural stereotypes by the colonized—by exploring the associations of “craft” materials to address broader cultural themes.

In this show, Arcega has cross-pollinated Homi K. Bhabha’s theories of hybridity with the goofiness of Homer Simpson. A vitrine containing various wooden spoons and forks, for example, initially suggests a collection of important cultural artifacts, but is in fact an arbitrary assembly of the artist’s own cheap souvenirs, mass-marketed mementos emulating native implements. Propped on a nearby platform, a seven-foot-tall carved wood utensil reads like a totem for a tribal feast. Titled Spork (all works 2007), it is an inflated, handmade version of fast-food fusion flatware. Spam/ Maps: Oceania is a map of the South Seas and its islands made from slices of Spam pinned to a board. That the foodstuff contains multiple ingredients is a fact as loaded as its palindromic title.

The exhibition is part of a series in which artists are asked to respond to the museum’s collections, a now standard institutional practice that Arcega imbues with new life by responding to conventions of display. He exploits the effect of signage systems, for example, by using cut vinyl photo transfers patterned after artifacts from New Guinea to transform a bank of museum windows into faux stained glass. Similarly, the artist’s placement of four carved nineteenth-century clubs, one with an axe attached, in a tall Plexiglas case helps to provide formal context for his own works. (Ironically, the objects were also included in the 1894 California Midwinter International Exhibition held on the grounds that now belong to the museum, and look like they could have been made there by Pacific Islanders in residence serving as theme-park examples of typical “natives.”)

Arcega forges another crafty pun in creating his own “clubs” alluding to tribal conflict and leisure. War Clubs is a set of carved pieces of raw blond wood topped with architectural models of aircraft carriers, barges, and armed submarines. But the artist’s hobby-shop literalness doesn’t quite ignite in this instance. Far more effective is a case containing three marvelous “Dance Club” sculptures, in which slightly curving, unvarnished furniture legs—a nice allusion to factory production in developing nations—serve as bases for scale models of nightspots in hotels, beach resorts, and cities. Each pulsates with tiny colored lights, and in the most winning touch, the base of the vitrine emits the low-volume, bass-heavy thump of a world-beat dance track. Postcolonialist institutional critique has never been more ebullient.

Glen Helfand