In a provocative essay titled "Image of the Decade: Osama and the Towers," published by salon.com on the last day of 2009, freelance critic Matt Zoller Seitz argues that all art produced over the last decade has been about the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Asserting that the burning towers were an overriding and "slightly unreal, iconic, representative" image — the work of terrorist as artist — Seitz writes that the day's horror "forced every artist in every medium to start each new piece by first asking if the work was meant to confront the image of the burning towers or deliberately avoid it." You can vent your outrage at Seitz's suggestion that the attacks were the work of an artist, but the broad impact of the televised imagery is undeniable.
It's worth looking at the Urban Culture Project's first exhibition of 2010 through the lens of Seitz's thesis. Samantha "Sammy" Persons graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2008. That her education occurred entirely during post-9/11 wartime means she's among the first generation of artists trained during this deeply fucked-up period. Media-savvy and conscious of her work's social context, Persons is innately aware of the broader cultural influences on her art.
Commodity, Commotion, Communication, a bright and busy installation of Persons' mixed-media work, is an exhibit of ideas more than objects. It's seemingly as far removed from history's direness as the artist herself: Charmingly gawky and completely appealing during her artist's talk at the exhibit's opening party, she spoke about the media's outsized influence on social conditioning. "Consumerism has eaten away at us and made us who we are," she said. After the attacks, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, "Show your confidence. Show you're not afraid. Go to restaurants. Go shopping." It's doubtful that the former mayor and other authority figures intended to sow suspicion of the marketplace, but advertisers have been groping for the levers of consumer desire for so long that it's weird when politicians do it, particularly in the context of a national crisis.
Normalcy in America is defined by what we purchase and use up. It comforts us. This manifests in Persons' work with such disposable artifacts as glitter, adhesive googly eyeballs and stickers featuring SpongeBob SquarePants, Hannah Montana, American flags and sparkly dollar signs — all of it scattered and collaged across her work like the debris of a preteen girl's exploded Trapper Keeper. Stickers are usually favored by young girls, and Persons addresses gender-specific advertising in one such collage, "I Am Herstory, I Am Making History, I Am a Part of Herstory, I Am Fighting History." Edged with the plastic triangular flags familiar from used-car lots, the piece is displayed parallel to the floor, like a table around which viewers gather. Its surface is dense and nearly unreadable with stickers, glitter and paint.
It's an accepted convention for artists to incorporate mass-produced ephemera, logos and colorful off-the-rack cultural output, but Persons' use of the stickers feels original, makes the work her own, the way stickers make a 13-year-old girl's notebook her own. Her complicated and deceptively childlike surfaces — what Persons calls the "sugar coating" — reveal her interest not so much in what's hidden behind the façade, but in what might be.
"Warn Us ..." consists of Christmas lights stapled to the gallery drywall, arranged to spell out a slogan in cursive. Christmas lights are gaudily attractive, Persons noted in her talk. She added that anyone can use holiday lights to decorate a broken home. It takes a comically long time to read, walking back and forth across the piece to sound out each word: "Warn us of the seduction of media offerings and expose the detachment of contemporary experience from natural experience." The work suggests a media-numbed American disengagement with reality, and the viewer is forced to engage with the piece simply to read it.
It is this numbness and disconnection, Seitz suggests in his essay, that terrorists attacked on 9/11 with a flamboyant and horrifying act. Persons addresses this American detachment, suggesting its media origins in several works. The upper level of "Foundation of Communication," a 16-foot-high plywood structure evoking a kid's fort, is accessed with a ladder. Inside, a monitor displays a video of the artist applying paint to a small stepladder that appears in the piece's lower level. The grace note: Every few minutes, the video is intercut with commercials for American Express and other companies, suggesting her awareness that her own work is the product of a culture shaped largely by Madison Avenue.
And that represents a partial validation of Seitz's essay, which posits a simplistic binary choice: Artists are either addressing 9/11 or avoiding it, echoing the president's assertion that "you're with us or you're with the terrorists." It's probably truer to say that art is an inevitable response to a given cultural environment, and ours was reshaped eight and a half years ago when extremists crashed airplanes into it. The scar is evident in our television shows, at the airport security line, even in so prosaic a place as the DMV. We swim in that water. Persons mostly addresses broad American generalities in her brainy work, seldom zooming in on the specific or the personal. She's a young artist, and what she thinks about the world is evident in her art. How she feels about the world is a work in progress.