Kenneth Shorr's Work Reveals The Sick Hucksterism Underlying Modern Life.
By Margaret Regan
CONSIDER THIS NOT-so-unusual weekend in the life of an average American family. On Saturday afternoon, the mother and daughter attend a big park rally staged by a nonprofit youth group for a thousand or so girls. The festivities on stage are punctuated by periodic announcements of prizes. A local restaurant has "donated" a meal as a prize, and in exchange the grateful youth organization calls out the restaurant's name, oh, 10 times. A costumed employee from the restaurant wanders around the festival, affixing advertising stickers to every girl's shirt. The sticker reads "I love XXX Restaurant."
The next day, the whole family of four goes to see a game played by the Harlem Globetrotters, an explicitly commercial enterprise. The taxpayer-owned university arena where they play is studded with billboard advertisements. In between plays, the announcer calls out the names of local businesses who have sponsored the game, and asks the paying audience for their grateful applause. During half-time, the crowds muscle each other around sales booths offering overpriced trinkets that turn out to be advertisements for, you guessed it, the Harlem Globetrotters.
So what do you expect? This is the world that capitalism has made, and we inhabit it so unthinkingly that nowadays hardly anyone even notices. (Out of the hundreds of parents partying at the Saturday kids' event, for instance, only one complained about the restaurant's blatant commercial intrusion.)
Luckily, there's a lone voice crying out in a wilderness littered with corporate logos. Kenneth Shorr, an artist who teaches photography at the UA, has an explosive new show that denounces the commercialization of our culture.
Now on view at the UA Joseph Gross Gallery, Shorr's posters and photographs rage against a variety of targets, including the erosion of civil rights and the simultaneous increase in government power over private life, the arrogance of the U.S. Border Patrol, the racism of the English Only movement, the trivialization of art, what he sees as the scapegoating of men in contemporary life. Most powerfully, though, he posits a world in which commercial and political speech have merged, in which language has become so degraded that it's used exclusively for selling.
The show is divided into two parts, one featuring 21 murky gelatin silver prints, the other displaying 11 glossy color posters that mimic advertising art. The posters are separated by small metal plaques that bark out official regulations. Shorr's posters and plaques together conjure up a world in which the corporation and the government have become one. Here advertising has the force of law. All culture is reduced to the sales pitch. It's a premise that's hardly farfetched at a time when corporate lobbyists draft the laws that regulate their own industries, when inadequate government funding has allowed advertisers to insinuate their way into the public schools, when youth groups sell their souls to donors.
Shorr's little plaques are the kind you see in waiting rooms. Alluding to the Nazis, who elevated government propaganda to an art form, the plaques are printed with the German word, Achtung!, along with the English Attention! and the Spanish Atención! Below these words, repeated on each plaque, the orders vary. Playing on the government's Orwellian propensity to abuse language, the plaques usually mix a bizarre, intrusive regulation with a bankrupt political idea. Says one: "No Non-Commercial Expressive Activity. Department of Entertainment and Education. English Only! Do It Now! Do the Dew!"
For the posters, Shorr has appropriated such weird images as a family of nudists, a monstrous German maiden wielding half a dozen beer steins, a huge grinning Howdy Doody. The political ideas advertised on the posters have been compressed into slogans that allow neither retort nor discussion. More often than not, a gaggle of familiar logos--Microsoft, BMW, Visa, Nike--has been etched into a corner, giving the message the appropriate commercial imprimatur.
In a touch of irony, the nudists appear on a poster promoting both "family values," an epigram so overused and so empty of meaning that it serves as its own advertisement for the bankruptcy of contemporary language. The slogan below the image reads "Family Values. Do the Dew! Do it Now! English Only! Seal Our Borders!"
Other works touch on governmental intrusion into intimate life. "It is the law," says the Howdy Doody poster. "If you're menstruating you must register." In a stab at commercial art, Shorr pictures a man with a camera photographing a woman on a surgeon's gurney. "Learn to transform your narcissistic anxiety into art," the poster cruelly advises. Corporate logos have also found their way onto a poster whose photo pictures a man and a woman having sex. Whether it's voluntary or consensual is unclear. Companies have long used fake sex to sell, and the poster suggests that if they could find a way to profit from real sex, they would. Printed in the shrill neons of commercial art, these leering posters document the slick, creeping hucksterism of contemporary life.
At the other end of the room, Shorr's murky photos are filled with elusive hallucinatory images, grids of metal stained in black, a male head on a table, a horrifying furry thing with metallic parts sticking out. Some have Nazi overtones. "Black Forest Hootenanny" has a vaguely military photo underneath, and a snapshot of a blonde woman playing the piano glued on top. Shorr has splattered the work with white paint, and violently creased up the photo underneath. For another piece, Shorr had to do hardly any work at all--it's basically a photocopy of a New York Times story about outrageous Border Patrol maneuvers near Nogales.
Shorr's horrifying art does not attempt to lure people in through beauty: He turns his back on the prized fine print of photography, and his unsubtle posters use images he's found elsewhere. There's nothing pretty here, but his subjects are not pretty. Nor does he worry about offending people with his provocative images. He's more concerned with offenses of a different kind, and rightly so. Luckily for those of us blindly immersed in our commercial sea, his art files up-to-the minute dispatches about the outrages the corporate culture and the government are committing against us.
Surgically Induced Childhood continues through February 20 at Joseph Gross Gallery, near the UA Museum of Art. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Kenneth Shorr delivers a free "Monologue with Visual Aids" from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday, February 6, in the gallery. For more information call 626-4215.
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