Image Versus Reality

Written the week prior to September 11, this review, in a peculiar blend of bad timing and understatement, began: "In case you haven't heard, Americans aren't winning any popularity contests abroad these days." The horror of recent events has devastated all Americans, and there has been an unprecedented outpouring of international support and sympathy. On top of the suffering, there is bewilderment. How could these terrorists hate us so much?

In the post-WWII era, it has been difficult to define what's "American." Our national unity in tragedy is providing a brief moment of clarity, but when the crisis subsides, the same question will resurface. Sometimes, viewing the United States from a distance, or through the eyes of others, helps us to see the face we present to the world. It hasn't always been pretty.

For many white Americans, our only taste of prejudice occurs when we travel abroad. As Americans overseas, we find ourselves in conversations with people who are surprised if we're not cramming McDonald's burgers into overweight bodies clad in shapeless clothing. They expect us to drive a gas-guzzling SUV, leave behind a mountain of trash, speak loudly, utter misinformed opinions, and attempt world domination (when we're not executing the retarded, that is). While we can all decry such assumptions, there are kernels (or boulders) of truth in these preconceptions. "America Inc." works pretty hard at reinforcing and perpetuating our stereotypes.


"Robert Frank: A Retrospective from the Collection"
Through Sunday, October 14, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For more information, call 713-639-7300.

"SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man"
Through Sunday, November 4, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For more information, call 713-639-7300.

With work 50 years apart, two exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston -- "Robert Frank: A Retrospective from the Collection" and the Art Guys' "SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man" -- offer differing takes on America and all things "American."

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The museum's preeminent photography collection possesses a large number of Frank's photos, including images from his famous series and book The Americans. Frank grew up Jewish in Switzerland during WWII, surrounded on all sides by the Nazis' eugenicist carnage. In the postwar world, he understandably was suspicious of any country that set forth idealized pretensions, especially America's unrealistic and loudly trumpeted 1950s mythology. Frank received two Guggenheim fellowships in 1955 and 1956 to travel to the United States and make a "broad, voluminous picture record of things American." During his tour through the Land of the Free, Frank spent three days in a Little Rock jail. Apparently his foreign accent and his cameras caused one diligent McCarthyist Barney Fife to arrest him on charges of spying for the godless communists.

The tour's resulting images showed an America sans Leave It to Beaver, the kind of place where housewives knocked back "mother's little helpers" to make it through a suburban day. America was a nuclear superpower positing itself as a role model for the rest of the world -- a superpower that was home to images like Frank's shot of African-Americans relegated to riding in the back of a New Orleans trolley car. A photograph taken in Charleston, South Carolina, shows the profile of black woman in uniform holding a pale, doll-like white baby. We fully understand that the woman was deemed capable to care for that baby but unworthy to sit next to that grown child on a city bus. Frank's images were the antithesis of the feel-good and subliminally jingoistic photos in Edward Steichen's "Family of Man" exhibition of 1955.

Frank was a part of the beat generation, that postwar sensibility that saw not just cracks but chasms in the gleaming facade of America. Jack Kerouac, in his introduction to The Americans, wrote that Frank "sucked a sad poem right out of America." Frank's work from the '50s may not look revolutionary to modern eyes, but at the time, his casual framing, grainy shots and unsentimental imagery were heretical. The work was reviled, only later to be appropriated by the mass media.

If Robert Frank showed us an America that didn't live up to its hype, the Art Guys (a.k.a. Houstonians Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing) make works that come out of an America that never had any illusions to be shattered. Hype without substance is the order of the day. There is only a sense of resignation and savvy amusement at the state of affairs that allows corporations to influence almost every facet of American life. Are we a consumer hellhole? Hell, yeah! So what's your point?

Like the college students who finagled corporate sponsorships for their education or the cash-strapped New York City parents who offered companies naming rights to their third child for the amazingly low price of $500,000, the Art Guys deftly tap in to the current zeitgeist. The SUITS project is a work that takes our marketing-obsessed, corporate-driven consumerism as a given. With a knowing wink and a big cheesy grin, the Art Guys dive right in and roll with abandon in the corporate cesspool. The work has an inherent irony, obfuscated by the duo's gleeful, diligent complicity. While most of us pay Nike for the privilege of wearing the company's logo, with the SUITS project, the Art Guys reversed the roles: They valued the space available on their own clothing and, in the words of late-night infomercials, sought to "create a positive cash flow" by inviting companies to purchase branding rights to their sleeves, lapels, pockets, etc. Were they co-opting corporate America? Was corporate America co-opting them? Or were the Art Guys showing the way to symbiosis?

Inspired by such venerable sponsorships as the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the SUITS project was a massive marketing effort. For those who somehow missed the hype, here's the outline of the project: The Art Guys had Todd Oldham design the suits and Selven O'Keef Jarmon design the overcoats, shirts and ties. Companies who coughed up the cash got their logo elegantly embroidered on the suits. The Art Guys vowed to wear the suits for an entire year to every public event they attended. Ad fees were calculated based on visibility. Through unrelenting letters, conference calls, e-mails and meetings, the Art Guys contacted more than 800 companies to secure 56 ads -- 45 short of their goal. They managed to parlay the project into a documentary by Cool Films and a Harry N. Abrams book. The suits and related ephemera were purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts and are on display.

The best part about the show is the "Wailing Wall," a collection of 62 rejection letters from corporations -- those that bothered to respond. Here is the real meat of the project; it's like cutting a peephole into the guts of corporate America. Corporate image and promotion thereof is the dominating concern. The letters share a similar language of rejection: "You realize the quantity of submissions…" and "Although it appears to be a unique project…" One surreal response reads: "While we appreciate the fact that the project would reach a significant number of Titleist and FootJoy Worldwide golfers…" The letters provide you with visions of bureaucracy as multiple people from the same company offer duplicate rejections. McDonald's rejected the Art Guys because the proposal was "unsolicited" and came from someone "not part of the McDonald's family." Gee, maybe they should have done a stint flipping burgers.

Our response to marketing oversaturation runs the gamut from indifference to trashing Starbucks during WTO meetings in Seattle to tattooing the Nike swoosh on our arm. Sometimes coping with "America Inc." is like riding a runaway train. Do you grit your teeth and hang on, or jump off at the Canadian border? Do you attempt, against the odds, to stop it, or -- to paraphrase the immortal Clayton Williams -- do you sit back and try to enjoy the ride?

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