Brent Birnbaum’s “ …And Justice for Mall Of America” at Second Street Gallery suggests we leave our crack tennies and other cultural misnomers at the door. Bombarding the viewer with hundreds of potent cultural images, his searing and clever installation of contemporary Americana announces the territory of the deal.
Introducing his show with “Shoecide Mix,” Birnbaum immediately identifies his terms. Shoes removed from their wearer become surrogates representative of his population. An urban pair of disembodied shoes could represent victims from gang violence. We recall them strung high over telephone wires, indicating drug locations, marking gang territory, or commemorating an assault. As a rainbow in shape and color, they potentially reference homosexuality. Shoes are both status symbols, and ritual objects, rich with diverse content.
Birnbaum’s work epitomizes a society that strives to be assaulted by visual stimulation, images and advertisements, on television, billboards, and even clothing. Branding is a theme here and he displays America through the ages brought to you by Playboy, “The Simpsons,” Miley Cyrus, and various sports teams.
His work includes large-scale installation pieces and smaller mixed media works on paper. Plastic toys are juxtaposed and aggregated absurdly with pictures from magazines and photographs. Pop culture is our way of life now, and is inescapable in Birnbaum’s world. Not only does he make this statement, but under the layers are allusions to racism, xenophobia, and religion.
When confronting these issues, Birnbaum often takes a literal approach. He depicts actual aliens where images of foreigners would be. He portrays our consumer culture and the problems inherently involved with it. The toys from vending machines are a commentary on the people who buy them: Put in a quarter, and instantly receive what you want. This instant gratification mentality ties these pieces together. With the desire to be immediately satisfied, it doesn’t matter what misconceptions arise as long as your appetite for the now is sated.
Birnbaum’s grandest work entitled “Trail of Beers” is the culmination of what he attempts to work out in his smaller pieces. He interweaves stereotypes about Native American culture with American iconography, irreverently hanging tomahawks on Crocs and pinning them to an assortment of beer boxes in a 12-step pyramid that implies alcoholism. The beer boxes and engraved cans with ritualistic symbols draw the viewer in, prompting an interaction with the large scale production. It is intentionally offensive and speaks to what happens when people let bigotry and prejudice inform their opinions.
While society is accustomed to overstimulation by movies and television, it’s usually a one way relationship. We receive information through those mediums, but rarely think about it. Birnbaum attacks our senses in the same way, but his art is interactive. He creates a dialogue with the viewer about pervasive and sensitive topics with the possible intention that they will then be discussed.
Birnbaum takes his work in a different direction when he combines Snuggies with traditional prayer rugs. Here, he interprets religion in America today. Proposing that instead of cloaking ourselves in religion, we turn to the marketplace for security and reassurance. This is more pronounced when he combines the Washington Redskin’s football team logo with the prayer rugs. Athletics are not just for entertainment, but a belief system. Birnbaum criticizes his perceived superficiality of American culture by juxtaposing symbols within our society with prayer rugs emblematic of Islamic worship. Should we ask whether it is appropriate to use actual prayer rugs, cut, distorted, and taken out of their intended context to make this statement? It is easy to be amused by and poke fun at our own unholy culture, but is it exploiting another’s while trying to achieve this end?
Birnbaum has emerged from a lineage of artists that can be traced to the “Assemblage” group in New York during the 1960s. Robert Rauschenberg, for example, took everyday materials, elevated them to the level of art in order to confront the viewer with contemporary social issues and problems. Instead of being a passive receiver of information, the artist sought active participation within our culture in order to transform. Birnbaum’s assemblages push this tradition even further than his predecessors. While subliminal messages certainly exist under the layers of color, objects, and images, his message exaggerates, his work is representative of a culture easily distracted; a society that often chooses to be hyper-stimulated. Wandering among the appealing detritus of carnival-like confusion, viewers unaware of the artist’s ambiguous undertones may find themselves guilty as charged. As you leave, be sure to pick your shoes up at the door.
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“…And Justice for Mall of America” Brent Birnbaum at Second Street Gallery Through December 21