Trademark™
Area 51, 401 E Pine St, 568-4782.
Through Jan 3.

I was pontificating drunkenly the other night, and found myself claiming that art is most interesting when it examines the edges between things. As so often happens, I had inadvertently stumbled onto a measure of truth, a useful yardstick with which to measure... something.

The edges are gray areas, culture's contested territory--between art and science, imagination and knowledge, public and private. The original gray area, blithely and volcanically mined by Andy Warhol, was between art and commerce, and it's a measure of, again, something (the pervasiveness of advertising? its visual glut?) that artists can still mine this territory, and it's still not quite exhausted.

This is why we so enjoyed the campaigns waged by Shepard Fairey, with OBEY/GIANT, and Shawn Wolfe, with Beatkit. The very word "campaign" throws these projects into a new realm of experience, one where issues such as uniqueness, utility, and coercion are as important as aesthetics.

The artist as brand--it was the next logical step away from the old warrior story of the artist bravely resisting the commercial world, alone in his studio with his spattered overalls. And it's significant that Trademark™ is at Area 51, a store where the idea of surface is both revered and mocked--where the handsome, the silly, and the outright ugly items of our past all share the opportunity for redemption. Imagine how different this show would feel mounted someplace like the Independent Media Center. But here it is, in the place that turned the shooting-range target into a design element.

The show explores the art/commerce edge--up to a point, after which it's more like an arts-and-crafts show by artists. If there's a slight schizophrenia about Trademark™'s objective (inspire thought? or sell stuff?), it shouldn't come as any surprise. Artists have negotiated that edge since forever, and I salute their ongoing ingenuity.

But there's something more unstable going on here. There are Jenny Heishman's neat light-switch plate covers with sleek painted stripes. Now, you could look at this as a Heishman work in miniature; where her amazing large-scale sculptures create shifts in space-perception using color and movement and transparency, these little works force a re-perception of a tiny, normally unnoticed place. On the other hand, they're light-switch plate covers. You can drive yourself nuts going from the one hand to the other.

More to the point are the Wolfe-style trademarks, such as WantBuyHave and ©Flatchestedmama, as well as Austin Plann-Curley's Counterfeit Camel Cash (which brings to mind J. S. G. Boggs' exploration of the transaction). But in the end, I don't know how much credit to give Trademark™, and it's just as well, since criticism bounces right off it. It may be exactly what it says it is, a show of affordable work by artists--and this is to art's good, not to its detriment. Why shouldn't there be a kind of art that you pick up at the store on your way home from work? Shouldn't a show with Sam Trout's Lula evoke not "Jesus, not Lula again," but "Oh, goody--more Lula"? Shouldn't we have more Lula in our lives than Nike, or Law & Order, or Captain Crunch?

Well, yes. And with the best stuff at Trademark™, you don't really know what you're buying, whether you're in on the joke or the butt of it--but the lasting power of such a transaction is brief, and I hope artists know when to stop. It might be sooner than we think. Fairey knew that GIANT could (and did) quickly flip from subversive to popular--to where, as he wrote in his manifesto, "people... demand the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging." Wolfe, similarly, built an expiration date into Beatkit, after which he declared it dead. Even Nike understands that desire must be continually reinvented, or else all the branding in the world won't matter one bit.

But that's what happens when you engage the market, instead of resisting it. The edge, that clever bastard, keeps relocating itself, and we scramble to keep up. On the other hand, in 10 years these objects will reappear as objects of nostalgia, and they'll cost a whole lot more. And then who's the joke on?

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