In the early 1980s, a curious thing happened to pennies. The value of a penny- sized piece of copper rose above one cent, making the coins more valuable as raw material than as currency. That's why pennies minted since 1982 have contained a zinc core plated by a thin veneer of copper.
The switch to zinc wasn't the first time zinc was used to preserve more valuable materials. Shipbuilders use zinc in sacrificial anodes—panels designed to attract corrosive energies away from the functional parts of the vessel. There's a sort of inverted heroism to these applications. Zinc is useful precisely because we value it less.
In Moving-Metal, Matt Browning's exhibition currently on view at Veronica, the modest metal is given space to revel in its own physicality—zinc for zinc's sake. The exhibition consists of a single object: a pair of "plinths," or rectangular prisms, side by side, constructed by an open framework of thin oak strips. One of the plinths is topped with a steel panel that has been splatter-coated by heating up pennies until their inner zinc bursts through their copper shells. This gesture echoes the expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Richard Serra—artists who embody the myth of the macho creative genius while also serving as ambassadors for the American-style capitalism that attaches enormous monetary value to the act of flinging materials.
Since his days as an art student at the University of Washington, Browning has been interested in ideas of value, hierarchy, and masculinity. For the 2017 Whitney Biennial, he created a series of minimalist gridded boxes of straight lines, except he made them by whittling wood by hand—a humble, time-intensive act of undermining efficiency and grandiosity as markers of value. Steeped in critical theory as a PhD student at the University of British Columbia's Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice, Browning is also thinking a lot these days about logistics, the art of moving things around.
"We live in a sort of vanguard logistical hub," he says, referring to Amazon's dominance in the arena of moving things around for profit. Today's logistical networks transport consumer products and capital; in the not-too-distant past, they included slave ships. Browning cites Dionne Brand's A Map to the Door of No Return as a personal influence—a book about intergenerational trauma and the African history that was lost as a result of the slave trade. When it comes to logistics, issues of exploitation and oppression are never far from the surface.
Every material used in Moving-Metal subtly engages these narratives on multiple levels. The vertical legs of the plinth opposite the one with the zinc appear to be made out of Brancusi columns, except they're crafted from oyster shells salvaged from an art patron's holiday party. They hint at art history, cargo ships, and the opulence of our new Gilded Age. While Amazon has made CEO Jeff Bezos the richest person in history, homelessness in Seattle has reached crisis levels. The thin veneer of progress conceals a tacit assumption that some lives are more valuable than others. The extent to which we are able to keep this hidden from sight is, perhaps, another testament to our aptitude for moving things around.