Marc Alan Jacobs: Hymietown

at Beret International, through February 13

Ben Stone

at Ten in One, through February 13

William Conger: Circus Paintings

at Roy Boyd, through February 16

By Fred Camper

Some artists use their membership in certain classes–racial or ethnic minorities, for example, or survivors of abuse–as an excuse to be lazy, believing that their identities automatically validate their work. But art can make personal experience accessible to others only through aesthetic form. When understanding an exhibition requires knowing who the artist is, identity politics threatens to take precedence over aesthetics.

Knowing that Marc Alan Jacobs is Jewish is important to “Hymietown,” his installation at Beret. This piece is akin to self-deprecating Jewish jokes that are OK when told by Jews but possibly offensive when told by others: Jacobs has filled the gallery with 100 children’s punching bags about four feet high, each titled Hymie and printed with the figure of a young man in yarmulke and prayer shawl holding a book. This image, Jacobs told me, is a composite of a bar mitzvah cake figure and his own, created in collaboration with a cartoonist. Looking a bit like bowling pins, the punching bags are close enough together to suggest that hitting one might cause others to fall. But since they’re weighted at the bottom, they would right themselves; these figures always survive. Or almost always–they also leak, needing constant reinflation. On my last visit, only 75 were on view.

There’s humor in Jacobs’s repetition, and by encouraging the viewer to punch, he asks us to examine our capacity for prejudice. The way the sculptures right themselves–with a motion Jacobs says resembles the rocking made by Jews in prayer–is a witty response to aggression. And the show’s title–taken from Jesse Jackson’s notorious reference to New York City, where Jacobs now lives–is humorously echoed in the forest of identical bar mitzvah figures.

But in part because of that title I found the exhibit troubling, even though minority groups have long tried to defuse slurs by appropriating them. Jackson’s 1987 remark made an impression on Jacobs largely because it made one on his parents: they’d been planning to vote for Jackson but were enraged by what he said. Before that, Jacobs had never heard the expression “Hymietown.” Does the title parody prejudice, or risk continuing it? Couldn’t an anti-Semite have mounted an identical show? Jacobs agrees that that’s possible, but gallery owner Ned Schwartz says he’d be unlikely to present a show by an anti-Semite (suggesting another role Jacobs’s identity plays). Still, questions remain.

Jacobs says that what interests him is a certain “edge” to the humor. “If you’re not Jewish, you wonder if it’s OK to laugh at it–I’m interested in who feels comfortable punching these things.” The only person I saw hitting them, however, was a very young child. The issue that seemed to me more interesting–and more disturbing–was Jacobs’s presentation of Jewish identity through repetition of the same cartoon.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1968, Jacobs lived in Jewish neighborhoods as a young child, moving to California, which was less Jewish, in third grade. Now living in Brooklyn, he’s once again “surrounded” by Jews–which he says is in part what his piece is about. But I wonder, if Jacobs had understood the persistence of the words “Hymie” and “Hymietown,” whether he would still have chosen this title. I’m troubled by the way that, though his Jewishness seems crucial to the piece, Jacobs hasn’t formally made his identity a part of it. Perhaps this provides the provocative edge he wants–but at what cost? What most bothers me, however, is the easy use of identical cartoons. Does reducing being Jewish to a book and a yarmulke parody bigotry, or unwittingly hand victory to the bigots?

It’s not that Jacobs is necessarily demonstrating Jewish self-hate–many other young artists also rely on kitschy repetition. Inspired by television or comic books rather than abstract expressionist painting or Renaissance altarpieces, they attempt to critique mass culture while duplicating its form and ethos, completely reversing the message of the original pop artists, who elevated rather than replicated mass-culture imagery.

Ben Stone’s seven provocative sculptures at Ten in One stand somewhere between the two extremes, gently tweaking pop-culture values without completely opposing them. Like Jacobs’s, his works look mass-produced. But if Jacobs’s overwhelming repetition seems worthy of advertising, Stone’s restraint produces a modest poetry. Honorable Mention consists of two imposing but empty handmade tables. The humorous Mini-fans consists of four ceiling fans that actually rotate but are far too small to move much air. Unlike Jacobs’s installation, they minimize rather than exaggerate. Uncle Sam and Old Yeller are, among other things, bongs–one built around a plastic Uncle Sam lawn ornament and the other a kitschy dog sculpture. If you tilt them back their eyes light up, and the dog’s tail wags noisily; the pipe and large tube Stone has appended gives each useless ornament an arguably subversive function.

A Chicagoan born the same year as Jacobs, Stone told me that these two pieces pay homage to the “mischievous” spirit of youth–the instinct to make marijuana pipes in ceramics class. He also points out that they were not easy to construct, arguing that they’re “way more ambitious than something a stoner would have made.” They remain parodies of grander cultural ambitions, however: smoking grass off Uncle Sam isn’t exactly what the symbol’s purveyors had in mind.

Mary Lou offers a joke on heroic posturing: this sculpture of Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton as she appeared on Wheaties boxes, arms raised in victory, is cut off at the waist and sits on the floor as if partly dismembered or half buried–as if she’s just fallen and crashed through the floor, hinting at tragedy or disaster rather than victory. And in contrast to artists who lazily appropriate, Stone put considerable work into Mary Lou. Starting with a cast of a friend, he sanded out most of the detail. “I didn’t want it to be detailed and realistic–I wanted it more to represent the ideal Mary Lou.” But within the tradition of idealized sculpture, Stone’s work falls–well, a little short. Though effective as a commentary on pop imagery, it’s not really convincing on its own; though handmade, it doesn’t really use form and color expressively.

Mary Lou is more a kitsch toy than an affecting figure, but Stone’s self-imposed limitation here seems essential to his cultural commentary. I could find less of a justification for Now Open 24 Hours, Stone’s version of the North Avenue Home Depot sign. In part this piece expresses his appreciation for the fact that the store is now open 24 hours; he says you can sometimes find artists there buying supplies at 2 AM. That’s nice, but the fact remains that apart from being smaller his sign is little different from the real thing–except that there’s more dead space around the words in Stone’s version. This is actually a much less dynamic design than the one on North Avenue, and to no purpose.

William Conger, born in 1937, is a generation older than Stone and Jacobs. An abstract painter, a professor at Northwestern, and a Chicagoan almost all his life, he speaks passionately about his influences: a variety of old masters at the Art Institute as well as Arthur Dove and Hans Hofmann. Conger’s last show at Roy Boyd displayed geometrical shapes in restrained colors, arranged in almost obsessively ordered patterns; Conger told me that one early turning point came in the late 60s, when he started looking closely at Frank Stella’s “big protractor paintings” and realized that his elimination of illusion “was not going anyplace,” that “the most important thing about painting is that it was always going to be illusionistic.” Disagreeing with Clement Greenberg’s position that modernist painting should refer to its materials, Conger “purposely began to do abstract paintings that were illusionistic in a way.” The present show carries this impulse a step farther: Conger’s extremely bright, rich colors seem to make a clear reference to mass culture.

But the paintings here also stand as an eloquent reminder that a mass-culture inspiration does not mean the artist must abandon internal complexity or the old-fashioned idea that he can express himself by creating new forms. In fact these works are animated by a tension between the almost inarticulate but immediate impact of kitsch and the contemplative appeal of high-art abstraction–between colors that ask to be seen in a moment and colors with inner depth.

Conger turned to the idea of the circus, he told me, as a way of changing his paintings. “I wanted to get away from the colors that I had been using. Not because I didn’t like them, it was just time to do something else. One day my wife came home with a very fine quality pigment that I would be hesitant to buy because it’s so expensive. It was very beautiful, and I said, ‘I can’t touch these colors–I have to use them right out of the tube.’ I’d always modified my colors before with glazing or toning.” He did mix these colors sometimes, however, and the resulting hues have some of the aggressive brightness of toys or animated cartoons but also depth and variation; in fact, many areas have lighter horizontal bands that reminded me of clouds. Conger’s apartment has a view of the lake, an inspiration for some earlier works, and here his variable colors also suggest lake or sky.

The “Circus Paintings” show at Roy Boyd includes six small collages influenced by abstract expressionism; the color and form of his 12 paintings, 7 large and 5 small, evoke the circus, though no images are literally drawn from the big top. The spaces and floating shapes he creates plunge the viewer into a world without ground, destroying the orientation implied by gravity. Depth effects and shapes poised in front of others create a feeling of precarious balance; Conger seems to take the risk of circus performance as a metaphor for the artist’s quest.

Just as different circus acts compete for attention, Conger’s bright, seductive colors vie for the viewer’s eye. The large Ringmaster shows a big hoop at top center like a steering wheel; it effectively draws the viewer toward the background. But the colored curves and bands within it are equally compelling, as is an even larger circle to its left that contains variously colored circles and rectangles, the largest of which is bright red. What’s curious about this piece–and key to the series–is that the bright red rectangle is finally no more compelling than the smaller dark blue circle below it. Creating numerous attractions, Conger balances each against the others, producing an almost bewildering polyphony of visual pleasures. He captures the seductive immediacy of circus spectacles without abandoning the complex unfolding of high art over time; all these paintings take the viewer on multiple journeys, none of which is more significant than any other.

The sensual orange curves on the left side of Lion Act perhaps suggest a lion, aggressively pushing outward and to the right. But ultimately the blue circle and red field with which the orange curves collide are no less powerful. Pushing and pulling against one another, these shapes make Hofmann’s influence visible. Finally one realizes that these pictures are about holding multiple possibilities balanced in the mind–and, in their own quiet way, about having the best of two worlds.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Ringmaster” by William Conger/ “Hymie” by Marc Alan Jacobs/ “Mary Lou” by Ben Stone.