Jason Salavon: Stacked and Sorted

at Peter Miller, through November 28

Noah Loesberg: Safety is No Accident

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through November 21

Dick Detzner: Corporate Sacrilege

at Yello, through November 29

By Fred Camper

Questioning authority is common among contemporary artists, but to do it well requires intelligence and skill–evident in the work of two young artists but lacking in another, slightly older one. Jason Salavon, born in Indianapolis in 1970 to hippie-ish parents and raised in Texas, has produced one of the best exhibits I’ve seen by a new artist: while he critiques the existing culture, he also examines things much more fundamental. And though most of his 14 works at Peter Miller are digitally produced prints, he shows little interest in the glitzy effects that are the field’s mainstay; instead his work is cool, quiet, and genuinely thought provoking. With an understated humor, he questions the status of the self and of representational imagery in the digital age.

Two pieces hung side by side, both titled The Class of 1967, superimpose photographs from Salavon’s mom’s high school yearbook, one all the male photos, the other all the female. He used no special morphing to match facial features–this is a simple pixel-by-pixel averaging. The result, predictably, is two black-and-white blurs; what’s surprising is how much each still looks like a face. The male figure seems to have a bow tie and glasses, the female a slight smile and a V-neck blouse. Yet they’re utterly depersonalized, with no hint of individual character.

Photographer Nancy Burson has long made digital composites of faces using morphing, producing composite views of movie stars, for example, and of the human races. Her point seems to be largely anthropological, revealing traits common to groups or to all of us, whereas Salavon manages to question both identity and imagery. Digitizing can reveal that social organizations have fundamental forms–expected modes of appearance, like bow ties for boys–that underlie any apparent individuality. By blending portrait photos, which supposedly reveal our characters, Salavon underlines both that we are unique–our differences create the blurring in these composites–and that there are common features to a particular photographic genre.

Figure 1 (Every Playboy Centerfold 1988-1997) is wittier still, deindividualizing much more loaded imagery. Since these models are posed in various ways, one would not expect to see any recognizable features, but since most of the body is positioned at the center, we do see an orange blur against a fuzzy darker background. Again Salavon gives a humorous edge to his social point: whereas his method might be naively expected to reveal the essence of male desire, of course it obscures it–though a fleshy orange blur against a dark field might be seen as the abstracted essence of an erotic image. One could view the work not only as a feminist rant on the depersonalizing effects of the pinup, but as a joke on such a rant, suggesting that the absurdly depersonalized might still be erotic. Playboy appreciates the image at any rate: it can be found at its Web site (playboy.com/world_ playboy/history/artist/index.html).

“I am at once an individual human, a collection of differentiated cells…a part of a community, a social class, a race,” Salavon writes. “I am all these things simultaneously and the distinctions are only a matter of point of view.” Exploring categories and distinctions, Salavon’s composites in particular reveal the way distinctions are lost when one generalizes. The artist makes the opposite point in 7,956 Shades of White, a giant grid of “white” squares. Any of these shades by itself would read as white, but when juxtaposed, most don’t seem white at all but reveal slight hints of color. “White” becomes not an absolute but a category with potentially infinite variety. Whether the whiteness is a skin color or the color of high-art abstractions by Malevich or Mondrian, the point is the same: Salavon undercuts the concept of the ideal by revealing myriad particularities.

Salavon received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 1997, three years after a critique in which it was suggested that he study science instead. And he’s accomplished enough with digital imagery to write his own code and work part-time for a video-game company. One can see his expertise in The Utopian Progress Automata, which pairs wooden cubes arranged like buildings with a video monitor playing a digital version of similar cubes, stacking and restacking in endless, nonrepeating patterns and “filmed” from a variety of apparently random angles. I found this piece unsettling in the best sense: it not only presents architecture, or perhaps sculpture, as arbitrary in shape and color but suggests that urban planning is akin to a video game. Unlike the architects and city planners who for centuries have sought ideal arrangements to enhance life, Salavon offers the view that all possibilities are equal. Considering the current state of architecture–to say nothing of city planning–he may be right.

This is art for a culture that has reconfigured the image as a collection of pixels, each of which can be altered in an instant, and that has subordinated physical substance to invisible computer bits. What’s so strong about Salavon’s show is the way he both asserts a new order in which there are no fixed categories or taxonomies and everything is a function of “point of view” yet also finds a poetry to his obliteration of the ideal. His gentle whites and soft-edged photo superimpositions, the engaging ways in which his video “buildings” keep reconstructing themselves, and his computer-invented superheroes, highlighting both the appeal and absurdity of their repetitive bodies and costumes–all resonate visually as well as intellectually.

Salavon spent much of his youth drawing, and perhaps the sensitivity it helped him develop is one key to his success. Gerhard Richter is an influence, both for his “refusal to stick with a signature style,” Salavon says, and for “the idea that conceptual work can still have a real strong visual presence.” Like Richter, though in a very different way, Salavon frees the idea of seeing from attachment to particular objects, positing that the world is never independent from the way in which it’s seen.

While Noah Loesberg’s three sculptures at Bodybuilder and Sportsman don’t radically question imagery the way Salavon’s work does, they do reveal a similarly quiet, intelligent wit and wonderfully send up technology and its misuses. In his statement Loesberg writes of using his materials “in either higher- or lower-tech applications than they were originally intended for and best suited to”–and it’s his reimagination of commonplace objects that I found most engaging.

A 1994 MFA graduate of the School of the Art Institute, Loesberg was born in Piscataway, New Jersey, in 1968. Raised on Long Island, he studied ceramics at Bennington College and has also worked in a foundry. Living in Chicago now, Loesberg says he finds “its history as a center for production and commercial interaction” congenial: “I get a lot of pleasure spending time on the phone with suppliers of industrial materials–my studio is surrounded by active industry.”

Loesberg writes that his pieces usually originate in “a fascination with a material.” In Flare Box he’s crisscrossed 19 highway flares in a box with a plastic top; as one burns down it ignites the next. The piece takes about five hours to burn out, and the cost of replacing the flares is not insignificant; Bodybuilder and Sportsman is open only one day a week, which is inconvenient for viewers, but Loesberg says that he can’t afford to keep his piece going more often anyway.

Loesberg points out that the flares’ packaging describes his method for keeping them lit, so he’s merely utilizing a design feature. But the surface of the box grows cloudy with use, so he’s also working at cross-purposes to the manufacturers’ intent: the flame is dimmed and impossible to see except close up. Furthermore, these protective devices seem instruments of destruction in Flare Box: deposits from the burned-out flares combined with the stubs resemble a giant concrete ruin–broken white pillars suspended over the wreckage of some monstrous fire. The flames themselves are bright and elegant, but seeing the flares burn amid their leavings makes the point that even a beautiful image has its cost.

For Scale Bar Loesberg created a long, boxlike object with three groups of four buttons and one of eight. Lit up, the buttons beg to be pushed. But doing so delivers only a very short, unrewarding fragment of a punk song–which is sped up as the buttons get narrower. The array of buttons is mildly impressive, and the object looks at least somewhat high-tech, but it doesn’t do much–the more buttons you push, the more you see how little the box really does. Loesberg presents technology, which some worship as a god, as only marginally useful.

If Salavon questions the way we think about imagery, and Loesberg our false expectations and misuses of technology, Dick Detzner in his seven paintings at Yello has a more specific target: religion. A 40-year-old Chicagoan, Detzner conflates traditional religious scenes, such as the expulsion from paradise, with advertising imagery. Seeing Christ on a box of Wheaties as if he were selling them in Breakfast of Saviors may be good for a chuckle–and images from Detzner’s show have appeared in a number of local papers–but the claim that Christianity and advertising are related enterprises is hardly new.

Editors who pick newspaper illustrations don’t usually see the shows, so it’s not surprising that, up close, Detzner’s paintings fall completely and utterly flat. Years ago Warhol painted product packaging with a vibrancy and sensuality that might have merited a religious comparison, though I believe he never made one. The problem with Detzner’s work, as with so much current art, is that his one-liner idea isn’t matched by the kind of technical skill that would give it depth.

Consider St. Snugglebear, a cuddly toy standing on a box of fabric softener that also bears his image. A “gothic” frame with a peak tells us it’s a religious picture, and the nine arrows piercing the bear, causing him to “bleed,” makes the reference more specific: this is Saint Sebastian. But in contrast to Titian’s great Saint Sebastian at the Hermitage–painted so brilliantly it makes the concept of martyrdom visible–Detzner’s bear wears the stupid expression of, well, a toy bear, and he’s painted with the same flatness and lack of resonance as product packaging. To make the point that advertising is our new religion, Detzner needs compelling images; instead, he commemorates the insipidness of advertising with paintings that are themselves insipid.

The Lamentation shows a Ronald McDonald figure happily crucified under the big arches; he too wears the vacant smile of a mass-manufactured icon. I’ve seen many badly done crucifixions, often mass-produced, but never one with a Christ this mindless. And if Ronald McDonald is meant to be even worse than Christian kitsch, I don’t get Detzner’s point: is he subtly extolling religious art by telling us that even the worst religious painting is better than an advertising icon?

The key problem is that Detzner’s paint just sits on the canvas. Any comparisons with Renaissance religious paintings, which he himself invites, are devastating. Whereas the darkness in a night-filled crucifixion by GrŸnewald in the National Gallery evokes the stark horror of an absolute void, Detzner’s dark background in The Lamentation looks like house paint. His paintings fail as a parody of Christian art because the best of it is far greater; they fail as a comment on advertising because his vacant, inert use of paint and expressionless figures simply reiterate the look of commercial illustration. Art that relies on content alone ends up saying nothing–there’s no style to give us an idea of how to understand the content. But perhaps this is Detzner’s statement: as our culture grows more mindless, so does our art.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “The Class of 1967” by Jason Salavon; “Flare Box” (detail) by Noah Loesberg; “St. Snugglebear” by Dick Detzner.