William Finley Green

at Automatic, through November 10

Raffael Rheinsberg

at the Fassbender Gallery and the Fassbender Annex, through

November 16

Yugo Next: Fuel for Thought

in the South Arcade and Festival Hall of Navy Pier, through

December 15

By Mark Swartz

In the 1970s Alison Knowles worked and reworked a series of performances and documents, collectively known as Identical Lunch, that grew out of her habit of eating a tuna sandwich and drinking a glass of buttermilk every day and inviting friends to do the same. Photographs of the proceedings included the Star-Kist logo, and somehow Knowles was invited by the company to visit the factory where the fish was canned. She accepted, but then Star-Kist abruptly rescinded the invitation, evidently because of the risk of corporate espionage. They thought Knowles would turn around and sell their secret canning methods to Bumble Bee.

Knowles is the godmother of a category of art I would call “metacommercial” art that exhibits a purposely ambivalent and sometimes perverse attitude toward commercial products. Metacommercial art is somewhere to the left of the blatant endorsement–shocking when Andy Warhol did it for Campbell’s Soup 35 years ago, but merely dispiriting this past summer when Mr. Imagination agreed to make a giant Coke bottle for the Coca-Cola Olympic Salute to Folk Art. And it’s somewhere to the right of stridently anticorporate art, an approach closely identified with the volleys aimed at Phillip Morris by the German artist Hans Haacke, who once created a giant carton of cigarettes labeled “Helmsboros.” Metacommercial artists adopt a poker-faced attitude to the brand names they fool around with.

William Finley Green, Raffael Rheinsberg, and the students at New York’s School of Visual Arts who contributed to “Yugo Next: Fuel for Thought” all practice varieties of metacommercial art, drawing on the imagery and products of well-known companies in the postindustrial age without exactly endorsing or condemning them or the ideologies they reinforce. Green uses three identical pinball machines for his Triptych, all marked with a conspicuous Bally logo; the machines were provided on consignment from American Vending Sales, a dealership for Williams/Bally-Midway in Elk Grove Village.

When Green contacted Bally–a company that started out in the pinball business but went on to become a casino and health-club colossus–the corporation didn’t respond at all. Green says, “It was a question of finding the right channel to get through to Bally.” Eventually he learned that he was ignored as a matter of company policy. Bally does not loan machines to charities, churches, or nonprofit agencies for any kind of fund-raiser or charitable event no matter how worthy the cause: if they said yes to one, they’d have to say yes to them all. Communicating to Bally via American Vending, Green explained that the plan was not to make money from the machines but rather to replace their glass tops with tinted glass of the sort used in limousine windows.

The Bally honchos were probably as befuddled and wary of Green as Star-Kist had been of Knowles, but letting their curiosity get the better of them they assented, and the artist was taken on a tour of the Elk Grove Village facility, which he describes as a kind of pinball museum. The workers who helped him install the limo glass were very enthusiastic about the concept, which reminded them of the classic Tommy machine; based on the Who’s rock opera about a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid,” that device was rigged to unroll an opaque scrim once a certain score was reached, forcing the player to do without vision.

At Automatic, Green gave me a quarter so I could play one of the altered machines, though the fun lasted only a short time since I couldn’t see the ball. The experience lifted my spirits after a long afternoon of merely looking at art, and it got me thinking about all the ways tinted glass could be used to subvert the straightforward functions of clear glass–as watch crystals, incubators for preemies, aquariums, those crystal balls with scenes inside and snow falling. But I wasn’t left with any definite feeling toward Bally. Is it an empire of greed or an empire of fun? Green did nothing to help me decide.

Rheinsberg’s series of graphite rubbings at the Fassbender Gallery comes from the German artist’s exploration of Chicago’s streets and boulevards. He made rubbings wherever he found words engraved on surfaces and signs, and the results are displayed in seven sets of rubbings that effectively neutralize the meanings originally intended. “City of Chicago,” “Church,” and the “AMER” from Ameritech hang alongside one another, collapsing the civic, religious, and corporate into more or less equal players in the artist’s vision of the city as exclusively tactile.

For his installation at the Fassbender Annex, Rheinsberg has hung a large blue sign on one wall that once hung outside a Comerica bank during the institution’s short-lived run in Chicago. On the floor he’s placed 30 stone blocks from another bank, unidentified but clearly one that no longer exists; the stones stand for the ruin of Comerica, which wasn’t knocked down but taken over by LaSalle Bank. Because Comerica is no longer in business, it makes no sense for Rheinsberg to either endorse or condemn it. The sign without the bank makes a more general comment on the passage of supposedly reliable institutions–reminiscent of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” in which a pedestal inscription amid the ruins of a long-vanished kingdom boasts the mightiness of a long-forgotten king. The real hero of this installation is the guy from White Way Sign who told Rheinsberg of the comings and goings of banks in Chicago. “Banks are our business,” he said.

Not only did Yugo go out of business, Yugoslavia destroyed itself through civil war. Replacement parts for the cars are scarce to say the least; regardless of their affordability and cuteness, Yugos are no longer sensible vehicles to drive. They can be had for next to nothing; in fact they’re frequently sold in pairs, the second one going for parts. Kevin O’Callaghan at the School of Visual Art in New York took advantage of the situation and gave his students an original assignment: turn a Yugo into something else.

The resulting works depart in one important way from other examples of metacommercial art: neutrality is replaced by a sincere love. Only love–and ingenuity and labor–could turn one of these homely little cars into a mini cinema, a Foosball table, a toaster, an accordion, or a confession booth, to name the ones I liked almost as much as my favorite, the fireplace. Standing at attention, almost unrecognizable behind a faux brick exterior, the fireplace represented home, comfort, serenity–all things that the war in Bosnia took away. The piece would have made a terrific advertising campaign for the Yugo. Too bad it’s too late for that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Triptych” by William Finley Green; Installation by Raffael Rheinsberg.