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Dystopic Visions
Critical Mass for the Visual Arts' 2004 Summer Exhibition

June 11 - July 31, 2004

Opening Reception: Friday, June 11 l 5:30 to 7:30 PM

Dystopic Visions postcard

Jason Hoeing
Cary Horton

Featured artists:
Amy Harmon
Khanh Le
Daniel E.C. Nuez-Shown
Jason Wallace Triefenbach
Tim Waldrop
Michael B. Zolman

Curatorial Statement

Sale Begins, Michael B. Zolman

Here in St. Louis in 1972, the award winning Pruitt-Igoe public housing project was razed. Pruitt-Igoe was a publicly-assisted residential housing complex designed by the architect Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the World Trade Center in New York City. Pruitt-Igoe was built according to all the elevated standards of the Bauhaus and International Style dogma it was economical, rational, functional, and stated a communal Utopian vision to bring about social change for the underprivileged. It even incorporated Le Corbusier's essentials of "sky, space, and greenery." But in the end, Pruitt-Igoe became an icon for the failures of modernist Utopian thinking.

Pruitt-Igoe was intended to inspire virtue in its residents, but by 1972 it was crime-ridden, dysfunctional and vandalized. The modernist promises of Utopia and social change that it held were just a facade, like the cold and alienating spaces and surfaces of modernism itself. Modernist theories did not translate into the way people really live, meeting their needs and desires. Priutt-Igoes razing is significant because it finally marked (with a punctuation) the failure of modernism to bring about a Utopian state or upward social mobility. In much the same way now, advertising, consumerism, and politics, while alluding to Utopian desires and states, are very disconnected from what people really need and even want.

Unnatural Selection
Amy Harmon

The call for entries for this exhibition asked for work that explores issues relating to commodities or commodification, but we quickly realized that the narrative these artists tell goes much deeper. The work presented explores the political, social, and cultural ramification of a post-industrial society while exposing "Utopian" desires and states as fictional. What we "buy" has become paramount, whether we are purchasing a home or an accessory cum fetish, "buying" into the latest media-political spin or cultural propaganda, or being suckered into a good lie; and what is being "sold" seems to more and more allude to the imagined perfect place or state of things Utopia. These artists foreground this proposed Utopian state, rendering it a monotonous bore, fetishized, frightening, antiquated, defunct, or make-believe, and thereby place "Utopia" within a fictional and ineffectual light.

Two of the artists explore dystopic narratives relating to the "home." Tim Waldrops Model Homes is a somber and quiet portrayal of "home" or housing. He has commodified the home, serialized it and stamped each out to the point where it has lost the potential for warmth, nurturing, the unique and personal experience one thinks of when thinking of home. Instead, his fabricated houses are a stylish stand-in for these experiences. They have become toys, miniaturized versions to play out scenarios of urban sprawl, neighborhood planning, dream house, and prefabrication. Waldrop's work illuminates "the idea of a standard that many try to measure up to . . . the epitome of the perfect home" (Waldrop). Daniel E.C. Nuez-Showns Home-Less asks several questions regarding the housing market. Among them, is it right to treat a home as a commodity when so many within the world are homeless or live in substandard housing, and should housing be considered a privilege (for the privileged) or a basic human right (for all)?

Unnatural Selection (detail)
Amy Harmon

Amy Harmons work directly appropriates the language of consumerism and consumption, but does so with a fetishized reading of what it means to desire and shop. This appropriation is completed so smoothly that it appears as if Dillards has actually appropriated Meret Oppenheim. Integral also in Harmons work are notions or ideals of the feminine, specifically various cultural definitions of femininity. In Unnatural Selection, phallic, vulvar, and other sexual readings are merged with over-commodification and department store display. Indeed, while this reading may at first feel like a feminist deconstruction, it is not. For Unnatural Selection conveys more how cultural and gendered definitions have spun out of control, and with no other definition for sale, we continue to "buy" what is presented as "truth."

Jason Wallace Triefenbach and Khanh Le have looked away from the nation where shopping is a "patriotic act" (to save the economy and win the war), but of course, their work must still wrestle with economic concerns. Khanh Le has focused his attentions on his birthplace, Vietnam. In Les work, Eastern culture, the modern structure, agrarian labor, and governmental oppression are all present, weaving a complex interplay that is communicated through the language of propaganda. Les overwhelming use of the color red and the white vertical banner all harken to communism and its rhetoric. Within his work is an uneven mixing of old world and new, leaving the agrarian laborer antiquated next to modern architecture and the small child and Eastern culture vulnerable next to modern military and economic structure.

Modernizing Vietnam, Khanh Le

"Changes are occurring throughout the country of Vietnam, but not for the enrichment of the Vietnamese culture; instead the country is cloning itself to be a cheaper version of Western culture" (Le). While Les work is rooted in fact, Jason Wallace Triefenbach is interested in the allegorical possibilities of art making. Triefenbachs work conveys a narrative about the Isle of Confusion, located in "the Archipelago of Much," commenting on its economy, industry (tourism, hospitality, and cat litter mining and export), and environmental problems (specifically, its continuing trouble with erosion). Humorous, yet sad, it could be true. It sounds reasonable, even familiar. This allegorical invention could be Utopian or dystopian, depending on the reading.

Michael B. Zolman's work, being the most contemporaneously controversial, will surely enrage and repulse some, and to others, it will warrant a sigh (possibly even a thoughtful one) or a hurrah for the deconstruction of Fox News Network. His work, on the most obvious level, is a comment on TV media, specifically media representation. Here Zolman has appropriated from the public domain. He has digitally captured TV media images of war and culture and then has overlaid them with textual information (from TV media as well) in the form of network identification, tickers, and bylines. The punch line is that the image and text in each are dissonant, and the deconstructed reading that becomes apparent to the viewer is one in which subjects worthy of public attention, here war (fear), death (patriotism), and Disney Land/World (charity), are in bed with the economy. And not sleeping, but copulating so that any distinction between matters of money and anything else is lost; in fact, it is taken for granted that money matters are indeed woven within everything.

Flag Beds, Michael B. Zolman

The Bauhaus and Constructivists, to name just a few, all believed that art could bring about a social change, and this change was rooted in modern notions of Utopia. But now that modernism has been deflated, losing much of its lofty potential, to speak of Utopia seems naive, especially when car ads and the newest I-Pod "seem" pretty Utopian. In our current geo-economic-political climate, it seems much more effective to speak of a dystopia, for we know what we fear we know what we absolutely do not want.

- Jason Hoeing and Cary Horton, curators


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