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by Grant Mandarino
Eyjafjallajokull got you down? Relax with an art magazine and escape to a world of razzle-dazzle, sunny skies and plucky folk. Give Art Papers a gander. Founded more than 30 years ago, the Atlanta-based publication traded its provincial focus about a decade ago for a fully global purview and is now a great place to look for decent, unpretentious reviews of the big shows, as well as longer features with a distinct Southern twang.

Take this month’s profile of artists Shana Berger and Nathan Purath, creators of "The Compassion Project," a strike against the ubiquity of Christian messages posted along highways and in cities throughout the Bible Belt. In contrast to coercive placards like "Go to Church or the Devil will get you," Berger and Purath have produced a series of billboards in Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans that read "Even in Hell there is compassion." Derived from a story about the Buddha, the quote is meant to be a universal affirmation of hope rather than an injunction to repent. The billboards also include a phone number and website where viewers leave comments. Only ten people have responded so far, mostly with approval, although one or two have damned the artists for all eternity.

Something called the "God Speaks" campaign originally spurred Berger & Purath to act. Founded in Florida, "God Speaks" began posting simple sayings attributed to The Lord on billboards across the South in the late 1990s. Within a few years they had gained a following on the internet and won over at least one NASCAR driver, who advertised the group on his ride. The amount of money spent on this campaign is no laughing matter, but the results were often pretty funny. Imagine driving in Mobile one day and seeing high up in the sky the following declaration: "‘It’s a small world, I know. I made it’ God." Wouldn’t that just make your day?

The same issue contains a really dense interview with 2008 Whitney Biennial alum Walead Beshty, known for his day-glo photograms à la Man Ray and his love for FedEx -- he sends glass boxes with the carrier and exhibits the inevitable damage done to them. Currently an instructor at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Beshty speaks about his recent exhibition at the Hirshhorn and another coming up at the Wexner Center that will feature an intervention on the wall of the front lobby and a mirrored floor like the one he installed last Spring at the LA><ART space in Los Angeles.

Most interesting is Beshty’s discussion of the relevance of "theory" for emerging artists. Fussy scholastic terms like "indexicality" (signs with a material connection to the object represented, e.g. the light from an object captured on film) have been associated with Beshty’s photography since his first big show at P.S.1 in 2004 and have followed him ever since. Because his own work so often touches on theoretical issues, his respect for philosophical criticism is unsurprising. He cannot abide those who would have art students shield themselves from theory with a capital T so as not to "hurt" their art (he derides Robert Storr by name, for those of you keeping tabs) and says that, during his student years, critics were often more influential than artists: "I felt artists tended to speak in self-important ways, but that criticism was more open, often less ego-driven." Art critics not ego-driven? I’ll let that one go.

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Turning to Artforum, readers will find the April issue contains its usual blend of ribald ads and monotone shop talk. Sprinklings of goodness like Tom McDonough’s profile of Shannon Ebner stand out from the mix. Ebner, also a 2008 Whitney Biennial participant, has spent her career playing language games, originally as an experimental poet and since the mid-oughties as a conceptual photographer. After completing an MFA at Yale, Ebner moved to the wilds of L.A. and began constructing monumental sized cardboard structures in the desert wastelands of the city that spelled out suggestive words and phrases -- "nausea," "landscape incarceration" -- that she then photographed (because nobody in their right mind would travel to see them).

These rickety contraptions resemble a DIY version of the Hollywood sign: monumentality on the cheap. They were conceived as responses to the U.S. government’s warmongering in Afghanistan and Iraq, most clear in a work like RAW WAR built at the La Brea Tar Pits in 2004. Collectively, Ebner refers to the works of this period as "Dead Democracy Letters," and McDonough makes the claim that the collection "constitutes one of the most profound cultural responses to the particular impasses faced by American art and society at the dawn of the new century."

McDonough is not just blowing smoke here (well, maybe he is a little). His larger point is that the "Dead Democracy Letters" broke suggestively with the kind of overproduced, hyper-allegorical and Cheever-esque investigations of suburban ennui so many photographers were churning out around this same time. McDonough sees Ebner’s work as interrogating the language and "image economies" of the war on terror head on, while these others kept the real world at bay. McDonough’s scholarly interest in the Situationists partially explains his obvious attachment to work such as Ebner’s, but I wonder if it may also account for his inflated view of its cultural significance. The Situtationists’ varied attempts to turn the French government’s words against them in the late 1960s look epochal in retrospect, but at the time they largely failed to resonate beyond a coterie of insiders and hangers-on. The question is whether Ebner’s work truly speaks to larger cultural concerns or instead operates within a more limited milieu. Her more recent exploration of the "instrumentalized language" of everyday icons such as the tall white man who tells us when it’s safe to cross a street makes me think the latter may be the answer.

"Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind" sang the Five Man Electric Band in 1970, and while ostensibly about cultural marginalization of hippies, the song could just as easily be read as a fevered response to the dominance of Structuralist modes of thought then popular in universities across the U.S. Like subsequent waves of theoretical fashion, Structuralism came from France, was quickly translated, widely imitated and later unanimously rejected in favor of the next grosse chose. The recognized father of the movement was Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist who died last October. He is memorialized by Thomas Crow, Michael Taussig and Sylvère Lotringer in this month’s issue.

All three of these thinkers tell a similar tale of Strauss’ intellectual development: early training as a philosopher, ethnographic study among the Bororo and Nambikwara Indians in South America, escape from the Nazi Blitzkrieg to New York, revelation in the teachings of linguist Roman Jakobson, several groundbreaking books, fame, fortune, accolades, etc., etc. It was Jakobson’s influence that led Strauss to re-conceive human culture as a complex structure of universal oppositions that function via signs and symbols. And while in some hands, this view straight-jacketed human civilization into an ahistorical scheme, it destroyed long-held beliefs that the so-called "savage mind" was inferior to our own. Strauss threw a wrench into inherited notions of progress that continue to impact studies of human development to this day. Of the three, only Crow sheds a tear for Structuralism’s passing. The others seem ultimately content that the movement ran out of juice.

Moving on, would you believe that the origins of the feminist art movement lie in Pop? Seems absurd, right? Well the University of ArtsRosenwald-Wolf Gallery in Philadelphia posed just such a thesis with a recently closed exhibition entitled "Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists 1958-1968." NYC painter Carrie Moyer writes that the show presented the Pop-era work of renowned artists such as Vija Celmins, Yayoi Kusama, Lee Lozano, Martha Rosler and Niki de Saint Phalle to buttress the claim, alongside a number of less recognizable names like Dorothy Grebenak, Joyce Wieland, May Wilson and Belgium-born Evelyne Axell, who were also active during this period. These women, according to Moyer, shared with their male counterparts an interest in plastic age materials and an aversion to the orotund heroism of Abstract Expressionism. They too shared an affinity for the commercial. And yet, Moyer continues, they produced a version of Pop conscious of women’s unique situation in 1960s America as both the "bait" and target of post-WWII consumer capitalism.

The hooked doormat of a two dollar bill by Grebenak riffs off Warhol’s earlier 192 One Dollar Bills but also reflects the artist’s less detached exploration of domestic life and stereotypical "female" activities such as quilting -- the piece also points forward to the "Pattern and Decoration" movement of the 1970s. Similarly, Marjorie Strider’s Green Triptych (1963), a painted bikini babe with protruding breasts and buttocks, plays with the baby-doll advertisements so beloved of Mel Ramos and Tom Wesselman making the two-dimensional pin-up into a "real" three-dimensional portrait. It’s by no means radical, but as Moyer points out, works like Strider’s do bespeak an engagement with representations of women in mass media that would culminate in the following decade. But like any story of origins the question remains: why stop here? Why not look at the female artists of the previous generation, women like Hedda Sterne, Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner as members of a matrilineal genealogy of the feminist art movement?

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For those with a taste for intrigue, check out the latest issue of ARTnews. Inside reader will find a juicy story about the battle currently raging between two prominent gallery owners and a cadre of unnamed cognoscenti over a set of "newly discovered" plaster casts of Edgar Degas’ most famous sculptures. The dispute has all the trappings of a courtroom drama. On one side stands Walter F. Maibaum, president of Modernism Fine Arts, Inc. and Gregory Hedberg, director of European art at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in NYC; on the other, a group of experts who secretly met at an undisclosed location in New York last January to discuss the "discovery" and broad speculation that the plasters are fakes. None of the experts present at the secret meeting would go on the record with the magazine for fear of legal retaliation, though the consensus seems to be that the controversy will fizzle out once the plasters, or any of the bronzes made from them, reach the professional market. Auction houses apparently won’t touch the stuff, and discount Maibaum and Hedberg’s claims that the plasters were created during Degas’ lifetime. An anonymous auction-house executive told ARTnews that "everybody in the market says it’s a lot of BS."

Still, the dealers are mounting a strong case for the legitimacy of these works, lining up a group of supporters from the museum world, sparing no cost on technical analyses and mounting exhibitions of bronzes they’ve had made from the casts at places like the Herakleidon Museum in Athens, the National Art Gallery in Sofia, Bulgaria, and the New Orleans Museum of Art -- not exactly locales of huge renown, but decent. Both Maibaum and Hedberg will be releasing books in the next year as well, all in an effort to win over the skeptics who consider the new bronzes "tacky."

At stake is the standard art-historical narrative that says no plasters or bronzes of Degas’ sculptures were made before his death in 1917 as well as a considerable fortune should the plasters prove genuine, since it would suggest that Maibaum and Hedberg’s set of seventy-four pre-date those currently recognized by the art historical community. Given the general sluggishness of scholarly opinion, Maibaum and Hedberg have their work cut out for them. Already they’ve posted responses to the ARTnews article on the magazine’s website essentially daring the experts who met in January to go public. Whatever the conclusion, the struggle should prove entertaining.

There’s a couple of other choice bits in the same issue, including a brief talk with Peter Galassi, curator of the Henri Cartier-Bresson retro currently at MoMA, a funny little article about Paul Gauguin’s proclivity for dressing up as other people, a look at Bill Viola’s new video game (unlikely to be as fun as Rock Band) and a profile of the street artist Caledonia Curry, a.k.a Swoon. Curry, whose work was included in the 2005 "Greater New York" show, is known for her intricate paper portraits of friends and acquaintances that she posts around the streets of the city. Evoking a kind of German Expressionist esthetic in these portraits, author Ann Landi refers to her as modern day Käthe Kollwitz. But Swoon is also something of a troublemaker. Once she and some friends distracted the guard of Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room and wrestled in the dirt. "I didn’t think De Maria would mind," she tells Landi.

Last year during the Venice Biennale, Curry crashed the Grand Canal at 3am with a flotilla of handmade ships she and several colleagues crafted out of recycled materials that ran on biofuel. (Jerry Saltz was apparently the only critic at the Biennale who gave the armada a welcome "Ahoy!") And this is not her first time leading an armada of eco-friendly junks: she captained a similar voyage down the Mississippi in the mid-2000s and another down the Hudson in 2008 in conjunction with a show at Deitch Projects (she makes money from prints and drawings, not her skills as a boatwright). She is currently working on building an arts center in Braddock, PA, famous for its industrial ruins, depopulation and a bruiser of a mayor. 

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A final shout-out this month to a new magazine called The Arts Politic, available online and in print by order. Published irregularly, each issue of the mag features a theme, the current being "bias." A good collection of articles explores debates about funding for the arts, the struggle of local under-age music/art venues around the country and underrepresentation of lower-caste artists in India. Scholar-cum-Interventionist artist Gregory Sholette reviews the 11th Istanbul Biennial, whose old-school political curators, the Zagreb-based collective What, How & for Whom, are interviewed in Art Papers. But the real strength of TAP is its engagement with issues of art policy at the national and state level. Interviews with city councilwomen who sit on public art committees combined with discussion of NEA budgets is not the usual art-world fare, and the magazine’s focus on the nitty-gritty is a welcome contribution.

That’s all this month. Happy trails!

GRANT MANDARINO is an art writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.