Like a lot of his fellow New Orleans residents, Dan Tague has unresolved issues. He watched his neighborhood — the notoriously neglected Lower Ninth Ward — become inundated when the levees failed after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005. Later, he returned home only to see the nearby Gulf of Mexico fouled by tides of oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. But if the work in his “The Kids Are Alright” is agitprop, it’s as playful as it is angry. Tague has a sense of humor as well as a great eye.
The Civilian Art Projects’ show takes its name from one of four pieces that performs a clever bar trick: Tague folds a dollar bill as many as 100 times, until it spells out an unexpected phrase, including “The Kids Are Alright” and “Lest We Forget.” He photographs the origami currency on a black background and prints the photos in a large format (large enough that the Treasury Department can’t accuse him of counterfeiting). He also folded one bill to read “Save the Coast” and silkscreened it in a less realistic, more Warholian style.
Tague’s themes are protest, American history and, of course, money. (In “Personal Finance,” a three-dimensional piece, money grows on a tree.) Tweaking existing objects in the manner of Marcel Duchamp’s iconic treatment of a “Mona Lisa” postcard, the artist erased all but the hair, moustaches and beards from a poster of U.S. presidents to yield “First Groomings (Appearance Is Everything).”
For “50 Famous Americans,” he lifted the word “American” from the posters of 50 Hollywood movies, leaving each one in the typeface and location it had on the original.
Skeletons are prominent in Tague’s work: His version of the American revolution’s “Don’t Tread on Me” snake has been stripped of skin and flesh, and a skull bursts through that venerable Uncle Sam military-recruitment poster. One timely image transforms Mobil’s old Pegasus logo into a winged equine fossil, scrambles the company’s pre-merger name into “Limbo” and surrounds the entire image with a ring of oil from Deepwater Horizon. (Tague had a friend on the rig.)
While the artist generally focuses on mass-produced objects, he sometimes uses material — like that circle of oil — that’s specific and even talismanic. Two linked pieces, “War on Education” and “Care Forgot,” use a chalkboard and a student’s desk salvaged from a New Orleans school after the flood. (For a personal context, the show includes a 15-minute video that features Tague, but is not credited to him, and documents his and his friends’ efforts to rescue neighbors by boat.)
While outrage fuels much of this work, Tague also harnesses the power of excellent commercial design. He repurposes symbols, mercantile or otherwise, that are well understood. (Just about everyone recognizes American currency and knows that it’s not an improvement for a living creature to become a skeleton.)
Even when subverting a Fortune 500 logo, or turning the universal recycle logo into a call for revolt, the artist emulates the clean lines and eloquent simplicity of his adversaries. Like his Pop Art precursors, Tague recognizes that corporate graphic design can be many things, from banal to ominous. And also beautiful.
Also at Civilian, local artist Billy Friebele is showing works that make patterns — some more abstract than others — based on the way people move. “Commute Loops” condenses one year of local work-and-back driving into a 91 / 2-minute video piece; it uses a mirror to suggest repeating the trip endlessly, as a sort of automotive Mobius strip.
Another work, “Walking as Drawing: New York, NY,” is a 90-second video (again with a mirror) that was “drawn” by the movements of people tracked by GPS devices. It’s the more engaging of the two — not only because it employs neon colors and is installed prominently in the gallery’s foyer. The piece shows that walking, even in Manhattan’s street grid, is inherently more free-form than driving.
All the prints in Ann Zahn’s show, “The Gravitational Pull of Memory,” are from a series called “Garden Journal.” If that sounds pleasant but prosaic, Zahn’s work does feature such pastoral commonplaces as carrots and sunflowers. Yet this exhibition, at the Art League Gallery in Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory, packs more depth and drama than Zahn’s subjects might suggest.
Zahn is an action printmaker; she carries linoleum blocks with her so she can carve images on the spot. Also, her art ventures far beyond Zahn’s back yard; this show includes prints that depict Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands. But her work is striking even when it doesn’t draw on travel adventures, because of two techniques: She pits vivid colors against black and white, and she cuts and collages her own printed images to make bouquets of paper flora.
Some of these prints have a Pop Art quality, although Zahn’s bright hues emulate those of nature rather than Madison Ave. Indeed, her sensual fruits and veggies might be the basis for an effective healthy-eating campaign.
“The Kaui Rooster” places a hot-colored bird on a black-and-white backdrop, while “The Bristlecone Pine, Oldest Living Tree” and, of course, “Galapagos Penguins” flip that technique to render principal figures in black and white and backgrounds in color. Either way, the contrasts are lively.
The show takes its name from two handmade books, one bound in bamboo and the other in bark. Unfortunately, they’re too fragile to inspect fully; gallery-goers are limited to looking at the pages that happen to be on display.
But the instincts behind the two volumes are evident in Zahn’s prints, which combine spontaneity and precision. Zahn may think of these artworks as shards of the past, but they also have an appealing immediacy.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through July 23 at Civilian Art Projects, 1019 Seventh St. NW. 202-607-3804. www.civilianartprojects.com .
on view through July 4 at the Art League Gallery, 105 North Union St., Alexandria. 703-519-1741. www.theartleague.org.