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CUTTING BAIT

at Randolph Street Gallery, through June 12

"Cutting Bait," at Randolph Street Gallery, is a show of eight young contemporary artists who play off recognized pop and minimalist idioms. By co-opting the territory of such artists as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella, they reconstruct the intent of accepted traditions using twists in language and imagery and deliberate ironies, challenging the authority of those traditions and the aestheticized notion of painting.

Six of the artists are women, and it is largely their work that gives this show its punch, as they poke fun at a medium whose hierarchies have (until recently) pretty much excluded women. There is a pithy anger in some of the work. Rachel Hecker and Barbara Kass parody Lichtenstein and Warhol respectively, using familiar American icons. Hecker's large, untitled mural mimics Lichtenstein's early comic paintings: it's a blowup of comic-book character Richie Rich, the young aristocratic brat who has little concept of how the other half lives. But Hecker's treatment of her subject is more satiric than Lichtenstein's was of his: she portrays a flatly painted Richie Rich being attacked by airbrushed giant flies realistically rendered. The blond, prosperous, cartoonish Richie Rich--representative of the white male establishment--seems to be under siege by a grotesque, bloated reality: a not very politically correct way of representing "otherness," and so curious. It may be that this is how the white male establishment perceives its attackers, however. Hecker's facility is striking: the image is as disturbing as it is arresting and allows the viewer to see familiar iconography with a new and questioning eye.

Kass's two photo-silk-screened works parody both Warhol's methods and his subject matter. Four Barbras (Jewish Jackie Series) and Single Blue Yentl (My Elvis) comment on Warhol's white-bread Americana. The Four Barbras piece parodies his series on Jacqueline Kennedy from the early 60s. Kass replaces Jackie with Barbra Streisand, her stunning nose in profile--replaces the quiet, beautiful president's wife with an outspoken Jewish actress. We're made aware of how Warhol tended to celebrate those whose physical appearance was devoid of ethnicity.

Kass uses Streisand again in Single Blue Yentl (My Elvis), this time in her role in the movie Yentl, in which she played a woman who dressed as a man to gain the privilege of education. This image plays on Warhol's picture of Elvis, taken from a still from one of the Presley movies. Kass flips the iconography of the mythic male hero by casting a Jewish female dressed as a man, producing some interesting twists: the artist seems to comment on the lengths to which women have often gone to access power, yet she comes up with no better platform herself than the usual male pulpit. In effect Kass repeats the role Streisand played in the movie: by co-opting Warhol so wholeheartedly she acknowledges the power of his iconography and her own inability or reluctance to devise an original language. This dilutes her argument, making the work seem merely ironic.

Renee Dryg and Laurie Halbritter approach their subjects with dry detachment. Dryg's strategies are simple. She paints the silhouettes of architectural structures in a pale green--the color of bronze's patina--against a white ground. Dome II shows the typical dome of a capitol topped by an unidentifiable but apparently historically important male figure. Her other painting, Pinnacle, shows a long pinnacle topped by a nymph. Dome II and Pinnacle address historical images of power and sexuality. The dome is a political metaphor for male power, often used in official buildings. It's also phallic and structural, whereas a pinnacle is more ornamental--fitting that there's a nymph at the top. Dryg's wry observations are somewhat obvious, and the passivity and flatness of the images, which is part of her antimonumental concept, diminishes their weight. Like the patina on an old bronze statue these images are pale, almost fading; the artist seems detached, content to let the viewer come to her own conclusions.

Halbritter uses devices similar to those of LA artist Ed Ruscha. Her enigmatic, murky gray-green canvas surfaces seem at first to be carelessly strewn with black blobs. On closer observation one sees delicately painted fine hairs amassed as if on tousled heads. Her two paintings, (Composition) and Hairs, seem ominous. Hairs has a small helicopter aloft in the distance, giving the eerie impression of humanity amidst fog, smoke, or pollution. The success of these paintings lies in their obscurity: the artist doesn't demand that the viewer do more than experience the works and speculate.

By contrast, Tatsuya McCoy and Elizabeth Berdann challenge any expectations of aesthetic experience. McCoy slyly references Jasper Johns and Ruscha in her use of language; in Painting the ground is all black but the word "sigh" appears in a white bubble at the top. She doesn't fulfill the expectation of what a painting should look like but rather the expectation of emotion while looking at the painting. McCoy's image is a sign. Its intent is to give language the power of experience. And in McCoy's elegant deadpan, this works well.

In a similar vein, Berdann intersperses language with painted images. Questions in Spinal Curve is a series of minute pictures of a raised eyebrow hung on the wall in the shape of a spine; these images alternate with texts that refer to the viewer's possible responses: "Special?" "Mediocre?" "Unusual?" "Exceptional?" and so on. The text and the images become larger as they move toward the ceiling. While Berdann has concocted an interesting structure for depicting the dichotomy between mind and body, the viewer feels constricted. Combining language with painted facial gestures too heavily steers the work, stifling a more interesting reading.

It is with some relief that one finds not all these artists are inclined to say something. John Phillips and David Moreno employ strategies that disavow the image having any meaning beyond what the viewer provides. Phillips's paintings Easy Living Plan B and Peetie Wheatstraw's Buddy use elegant abstract lines devoid of content. The paintings' refined black linear gestures on a colored ground refer to early Frank Stella paintings and the minimalist tradition generally. While they resonate with the rich graphic qualities one also finds in Japanese prints, there is nothing in the titles to suggest specific meanings. Yet the titles do add something to the work, however intangible. The likeness to Japanese prints also mocks, as if Phillips were teasing us with some sort of aesthetic joke.

Moreno's two paintings are quite different from each other. His Oil and Steel Ball Bearings on Muslin is literally that. The cloth is pinched in random areas around ball bearings and covered with a coat of silver: a painting can be anything, even an exploration of its own materials. His other, untitled painting has an aqua ground with dyed baby pictures in bubbles hovering near the bottom of the canvas. This image is interesting and quirky, hard to grasp in any succinct way. It leaves an impression of ephemerality, as if water, bubbles, and babies were all about to burst.

While "Cutting Bait" has its weak spots, overall it's a carefully orchestrated examination of how contemporary artists are negotiating past traditions. Feminists in particular have begun to cut a wide swath, co-opting and reshaping conventions. And in time both the artist's vision and artistic and cultural dialogue will reflect the concerns of more than just the privileged few.

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