Dark Displays of the American Dream

José Ruiz's
José Ruiz's "Descendents of Ascension" installation includes photos of Hispanic day laborers, left. Lisa Marie Thalhammer pieces together her truck-stop ladies of "Lizard County," above. Vesna Pavlovic's photos of model home interiors evoke old-world gentility. (Photos Courtesy Of G Fine Art)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 9, 2007

At G Fine Art, three artists hold a mirror to America the not-so-beautiful. Together they explore opportunism, exploitation and the compulsion to hide dirty secrets under a patina of gentility.

Artist José Ruiz's installation, "Descendents of Ascension," sets up the exhibition's central themes. The erstwhile District resident ran art collective Decatur Blue before heading west for graduate school and then on to New York. Ruiz has always had an inventive, spontaneous approach, and this installation's ad hoc nature reflects that. It looks very much as if someone started a repair job in an art gallery. Conventions of the art world and Home Depot set get equal, if incongruous, exposure.

Ruiz positioned two stepladders fashioned out of drywall beside a smattering of bright construction lights illuminating an unfinished gallery wall. Nearby, he's installed typical art gallery fare: two video works, a wall-size photo-based mural and a pair of color photographs. The effect is almost off-putting. But the concepts Ruiz is getting at make grappling with the work worth the effort.

Two distinct conversations emerge. One involves the fate of undocumented Hispanic workers in America, something that seems particularly relevant after a week of Senate debate on a controversial immigration-overhaul bill.

The other dialogue is about the accepted practice of artists subcontracting their work to others. This started in earnest among contemporary artists when minimalists such as Donald Judd outsourced their metal boxes to industrial manufacturers. Today, the practice has become so common that it's beginning to look a little exploitative. Or at least that's what Ruiz suggests.

Presiding over Ruiz's installation are two pairs of two-foot-long raptor wings filled in with rippling American flags, seemingly descending from the heavens. Ruiz didn't make the decals -- he ordered them from an Indiana-based airbrush artist he found by Googling "patriotic eagle wings." The wings lend the installation a campy note while nodding to the work's title, "Descendents of Ascension," which suggests the upward tug of American ambitions.

But another issue arises here: By ordering these pieces, Ruiz raises a tricky issue. Maybe he's the exploiter of another's cottage industry. Those decals, which we assume he bought for $75 a pair, now sell for exponentially more -- thanks to their association with the artist and their exhibition in a gallery. (At G, the wings go for $500 a set.)

But when Ruiz places himself in the position of an undocumented Hispanic worker, as he does in two photographs here, the artist puts himself on the other side of the exploitation question. He had himself photographed standing alongside a group of men awaiting day labor jobs. (Ruiz is a Peruvian citizen who carries a U.S. green card.) The men wait for hours in strip mall parking lots, staying in small groups until a car rolls up with a prospective boss at the wheel. Then they swarm the car to make a deal. In Ruiz's hands, the day labor market has never looked quite so much like prostitution. And, perhaps, the art world as well.

Lisa Marie Thalhammer, the second artist in the show, looks at another group of parking lot denizens -- a subculture of hookers called "lot lizards," who troll truck stops for johns. These ladies of the night are the subject of Thalhammer's collage drawing series "Welcome to Lizard County." The artist pieced together images of women's faces and body parts cut from Playboy and Vogue magazines, among others (many sport nice heels or other designer duds), to make Frankenstein monster-style bodies that the artist places on top of drawings she's done of the hoods of semis.

The fact that Thalhammer made her lizards out of pictures from magazines shows how women's bodies are essential fuel for economic engines. The female form becomes a coat hanger -- for clothing and, metaphorically, for male fantasies. Thalhammer's idea is rich. Too bad that in this show there are too many of them on view, each following the same general format and execution, diluting their individual power.

Next to Ruiz's and Thalhammer's explorations of the illicit, Vesna Pavlovic's photographs of the insides of model homes offer a white-washed alternative. Pavlovic, who recently received her MFA from Columbia University and once showed with Fusebox, has long been interested in interiors that betray the ambitions of their owners. Years ago she produced a memorable series of crumbling, communist-era Eastern bloc hotels that once gleamed with Vegas-style bravado. Here, she finds and photographs fully furnished show homes meant to entice buyers to brand-new resort communities.

These model homes' furnishings broadcast a genteel old-world style that's meant to link their occupants to landed gentry -- and to erase their nouveau riche striving.

Pavlovic's style only enhances the incongruity of these messages. She printed three arresting black-and-white photographs in dark tones that call to mind the gravitas of late-19th-century views of Freud's home and office. The interiors are none-too-veiled attempts at mimicking European privilege: One home features faux painting of a Tuscan landscape meant to recall a villa fresco. It's as if everything new is old again.

José Ruiz, Vesna Pavlovic and Lisa Marie Thalhammer at G Fine Art, 1515 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., to July 7. 202-462- 1601, http://www.gfineartdc.com

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