Land of the Free

"Let the eagle soar…she's far too young to die, you can see it in her eye…" Ah, the immortal song stylings of John Ashcroft, our esteemed attorney general, former senatorial candidate who couldn't beat a dead man, and devout Pentecostal songster. Searching the Net for patriotic inspiration on the eve of the Fourth of July, I came across a five-minute (edited) CNN clip of Ashcroft performing his latest Meisterstück at a North Carolina seminary. You'd think that enduring such a performance would cause those seminarians to renounce their citizenship and doubt the existence of a kind and merciful god, but maybe that's just me.

Definitions of patriotism obviously vary. Ashcroft leans toward America über Alles theocracy, and there are plenty of people who agree with him. But thankfully, this country also has a broad spectrum of freethinking dissenters -- from the guy who filed the Pledge of Allegiance lawsuit to a friend of mine who reminds his kids that George Washington was a slave owner. The artists of Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery's "Made in USA" fall in this category. This small show features a diverse assemblage of "American" objects pulled together with a very different nod to patriotism.

Ike E. Morgan's oeuvre consists of thousands of portraits of culturally iconic figures, from George Washington to Michael Jackson to Santa Claus. His Washington portrait looks a little like a second-grader's project for President's Day. George has a ruddy visage, slightly less Waspy than he actually was. The appealingly quirky drawing is scribbled with crayon and smeared with paint and ink. Morgan, who is hospitalized for schizophrenia, culls his images from the books and magazines available on hospital carts and prefers to make his art outdoors on the hospital grounds.

Steven Murray crafts models of the very sort of slave ships that hauled Washington's human chattel to American shores. In a subversive take on the traditional "ship in the bottle" hobbyist project, Murray's handcrafted vessels come complete with diagrams of "cargo" placement and snippets of period advertising. The object's charming handmade quality only heightens the horror of the subject matter.

Todd Hebert's paintings star iconic American objects rather than people. Fence with Football views a fuzzy, airbrushed sunset through a ghostly chain-link fence. A crisp, ovoid pigskin sails through the air. The fence makes an elegant lacy network over the blue-pink-orange of the pollution-pigmented sky. The image is familiar yet otherworldly. In another Hebert drawing, a baseball soars through a snowy powder-blue sky like a satellite.

What American sports event is complete without a refreshing soft drink? Tom Sachs has carefully constructed a paper facsimile of a soda cup that melds low- and high-end consumer elements. Made from recycled luxury goods packaging, the cup is colored Hermès orange with the attendant logo visible. It also sports the Coca-Cola label and McDonald's golden arches for a taste of fizzy, quickly absorbed and disposable consumer culture.

A cheap plastic parade flag mounted on the wall depicts our national symbol as mass-produced consumer item -- sort of. What looks like a disposable nationalist accessory is actually Jonathan Seliger's obsessive simulation of a cheap plastic flag. The flag is neatly painted on a thick, durable, rubbery fabric; even its "wooden" stick is actually a deceptively painted metal rod. Seliger creates exacting replicas of a variety of common objects, from FedEx boxes to Gap shopping bags. In Seliger's world the flag is another product like these.

The Old Glory theme continues with Jody Rhone's Flag. While it is stitched in segments of stars and stripes, it's completely crafted from white material. It looks like a flag of peace or surrender. It seems as if the colors have been bleached out and worn down, all the blood and valor gone, leaving behind only blanched purity.

Joe Havel's Economy (Flag) is a witty comment on garment manufacturing that simulates a flag via shirt labels. A mass of tiny navy tags emblazoned with men's shirt sizes creates the square of blue. Washing and care instructions -- do not bleach; tumble dry low -- approximate the flag's stripes. Countries of origin are also recorded: Made in Yugoslavia. Made in Sri Lanka. Made in Korea. Made in USA.

For his Dangerous Kitchen Collection, Marty Baird manipulates innocuous scraps of vintage wallpaper. Over a wholesomely decorative, gridlike pattern dotted with tiny apples, Baird stamps a subtle pattern of rattlesnakes. In Adam and Eve fashion, the apples and the snake cohabitate, adding an element of risk to banal domesticity.

By stapling Poland Spring labels into a quilt/wallhanging, Tony Feher approximates the Maine landscape that produces this bottled H2O. Massed together, the label's scenic views form what looks like a homeless person's craft project -- but in a good way. Also operating in the bad craft zone, Todd Runnells's Tobacco Road House presents a quaint homestead crafted from old cigarette butts in lieu of Lincoln Logs. The smokes are all American brands, some of them marked with bright lipstick smudges. It smells as bad as one would expect, a certain mustiness melded with burned tobacco. Someone should send it to tobaccophile Jesse Helms.

The artists in "Made in USA" pick up on several different threads of the American experience. But remember, kids, we can always manage to find some common ground. Even John Ashcroft and Mullah Omar agree on something: They both think dancing is a sin.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer