Currency: What Do You Value?
November 17, 2018—
February 23, 2019
Walking into the polemical exhibition Currency: What Do You Value? is a bit like stepping onto the set of Toho Studio’s 1961 B-movie sci-fi thriller “Mothra” about a mythical monstrous moth, mutated by nuclear radiation, that rescues twin kidnapped fairies from the evil clutches of fictitious capitalist Clark Nelson. The trigger for this reverie is the trio of giant flying insects high up in the gallery’s atrium. These Mothra-scale creatures are actually butterflies constructed of images replicated from United States currency. These and other banknote laden butterflies are the brainchildren of Erika Harrsch who is also responsible for the dystopian masterpiece “Inverted Sky” a gorgeous mural-scale acrylic and collage on canvas that uses more banknote butterflies, man-made products and resulting jellyfish that are now filling earth’s acidic oceans, as harbingers of death, resurrection and final decomposition. Traditionally, butterflies have been emblematic of transformation and transmutation of the human soul after death. But in the context of this installation even the human soul has been monetized.
Beyond Harrsch’s assessments, the Occupy Museums installation titled “Debtfair” focuses on labor, the burden of debt and rising living costs experienced by 97 New Mexico artists. The presentation includes a cutout wall section of sheetrock in the shape of the state of New Mexico housing 25 art objects; mounted adjacent to a large video screen that acts as a wailing wall for artists not among the 25 selected. The video showcases the work of all 97 artists with short statements by each about their financial difficulties.
At the south end of the main gallery is “The New Bootleggers: Fabricating (Im) Propriety,” an outstanding installation by Albuquerque artist Leonard Fresquez and 19 others that explores the world of knock-offs. While reminiscent of Keith Haring’s East Village shop that carried “knock-offs” of Haring’s own work in the form of postcards, tee shirts and prints, Fresquez asks deeper questions about who benefits from trade-marks, product logos and name branding when unknown artisans are pressed into making such presumably rare objects. Fresquez’ storefront and interior could stand alone as a complete exhibition.
Albuquerque master painter Scott Greene offers “Deluge and Mountsanto,” two lusciously dark and impeccably executed murals that chronicle our descent into the morass of obsolescence endemic to a consumer-based economy. Greene is a truth-telling environmentalist who (to paraphrase Bob Dylan) can paint the rubber off the tire and scare the bird off the wire. In “Mountsanto,” Greene renders a mountain of sheep, home appliance carcasses, empty oil drums, foliage, an old neon cross and myriad other discards, all being climbed over by an industrial-grade farm tractor belching black smoke. The pyramid of waste reaches into a murky sky like a giant tumor growing on the earth’s surface, the result of corporations like Monsanto controlling what farmers can grow and the invention and exploitation of GMO crops, chemical fertilizers and patented seeds.
The show also examines the value of quotidian jobs. The workers holding those jobs are depicted as western movie set stage flats in Ramiro Gomez and David Feldman’s archival print series of groundskeepers, day laborers and maids. The figures are cardboard cutouts placed in settings that include “Las Meninas, North Facing Road, Bel Air” (2017), depicting two maids dressing a young-woman who was culled from Diego Velazquez’ 1656 painting “Las Meninas.” The 2017 composition is set in front of a gated California mansion.
Suggestions of Mothra’s charges loom again in “Black Tears and Black Rain,” a masterfully ambitious mixed-media mural by Albuquerque printmaker Yoshiko Shimano. Shimano cites the 1941 sinking of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as his inspiration, including in his picture the fossil-fuel-fairy-circles that formed as tears of oil rose above the Arizona and the black rain, contaminated with high levels of radioactive dust, that fell in Japan days after the blasts. Despite its content, Shimano’s elegant masterpiece offers the message that even arch-enemies can heal differences and become friends and allies.
Currency is a compound complex carnival filled with side shows emphasizing some aspect of our surreal global economic system that gives birth to coleslaw investment instruments like the derivatives market, currently valued at one point four quadrillion dollars, dwarfing the annual gross world product of about seventy-five trillion dollars. While some academics still debate the nuances surrounding the commodification of human expression, the artists in this installation confront the quotidian reality of a kitten crushing top-down economic system from behind a bulwark of whimsey, disdain, sadness, bravado and the enormous talent demanded by aesthetic mastery and hard work.