The beautiful thing about banality, if you're an artist, is how little effort is needed to assume a superior position toward it. For better and worse, nothing is more banal in this society than consumption. (For better? Imagine the alternative: not consuming.) And few opinions among people who consider themselves advanced are more banal than scorning consumption.
Two related photography exhibitions - "Ad/Agency," which runs at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University through Jan. 27; and "Cornucopia: Documenting the Land of Plenty," which runs at the Montserrat College of Art Gallery through Feb. 2 - forthrightly, if not all that memorably, profess their opposition to people buying too much. The experience of viewing them is a bit like walking down a Whole Foods aisle and hearing people with carts piled high lambaste
The title of the PRC show makes a good point. The pun isn't subtle - ad agency, get it, like Madison Avenue? - but it indicates a dismaying truth. The agent of consumerism is the consumer. Beyond the basics necessary for survival, none of us has to consume anything. Consumption is a choice. No one is forced against his or her will to go to the mall any more than one is forced to go to art school. And the two enterprises are not altogether unrelated: Underlying both is indulgence, albeit of varying sorts.
Imagine a fish complaining about the ocean being wet. Short of epic evaporation, there's not much to be done about oceanic damp, and none of the nine photographers in "Ad/Agency" seems eager to flop onto dry land. Although all their biographies include their gallery representation, none list any affiliations with an ashram, monastery, or commune. He or she who lives by the credit card is ill advised to complain about the credit card.
Diana Shearwood, for example, takes photographs of commercial images of food on trucks and other moving billboards. The aim is to make viewers aware of the great distances food can be transported to get to the supermarket. "The twenty fresh foods that typically fill your shopping basket have traveled over 100,000 miles despite that [sic] many of these items could be sourced nearby," notes Shearwood. A Montreal resident, she presumably restricts her winter produce purchases to roots and tubers.
Kate Bingaman-Burt, in "Obsessive Consumption Is Five," makes no bones about piling her market basket high. Obsessive Consumption, her ongoing artistic project, is at once a company, a website, and way of life - one we can all relate to, however guiltily. Bingaman-Burt's work in "Ad/Agency" consists of more than a dozen paired images: various favorite possessions (earrings, CDs) alongside the same objects shown in a commercial setting. Give her major points for candor. "Obsessive Consumption," Bingaman-Burton states, "is repulsed and grossly fascinated by the branding of consumer culture. It wants to eat the entire bag of candy and enjoy the sickness that it feels an hour later."
The most visually arresting work in "Ad/Agency" comes from Dean Kessmann. His "Cover to Cover" images (photographs of curled-up art magazines) look like horizontal versions of Morris Louis "Stripe" paintings. They have a circuit-board beauty that's both abstract and diagrammatic.
The most intellectually arresting work here consists of three examples from Hank Willis Thomas's series "Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008." Thomas appropriates advertising images that target and/or include African-Americans. He then manipulates the images digitally to remove extrinsic elements - text, logos, and so on - to de-contextualize them. The results can be both revealing and a little unnerving. Advertising in a market economy strikes a blow for inclusion - if only in the pursuit of profit. The sole color that concerns advertisers is green, the only minorities excluded are those lacking disposable income. As Thomas shows, this can turn inside out (or not) the place of otherwise marginalized groups in society.
One photographer, Brian Ulrich, has work in both shows. In the wake of 9/11, President Bush urged citizens to spend money to help prevent a recession. This inspired Ulrich's "Copia" series, images of shoppers diligently going about their patriotic duty. The large-format images are striking, if also unsubtle.
"Cornucopia" consists of 18 images and one installation, Portia Munson's "Green Piece, Lawn." It comprises much square footage of discarded plastic objects, as verdant in color (if not otherwise) as the most fanatically tended sward of grass. There are Frisbees and lawn chairs and toys and Perrier bottles and boots and golf bags and caps and Crocs (which look no less hideous as art than footwear) and toys and watering cans and at least one recycling bin. It's a desert of dead detritus, objets trouvés as objets refusés.
Also part of "Cornucopia," Chris Jordan's series "Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption" acknowledges the allure of excess even while abhorring it. Jordan uses an 8-by-10 view camera to take large-scale pictures of immense piles of refuse, much of it technological. What is unprepossessing and mundane individually becomes beautiful and abstract when seen as a whole. "
Diodes are present, if not visible, in Xing Danwen's chronicling of the recycling of US electronic trash in China's Guangdong province. As much as 90 percent of our discarded computers, televisions, and cellphones end up in Guangdong. Its junkyards, the wall text states, are "symbolic of the global ramifications of America's spending habits." This is certainly true, but those ramifications also include jobs eagerly sought by Chinese workers. Castigation is necessary and useful, but castigation without acknowledgment of mitigation isn't just flawed but disingenuous - or worse.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.