Shiny and Tawdry: Glen Fogel at the Contemporary Arts Museum

At the opening last night of Glen Fogel's new show at the Contemporary Arts Museum "With Me ... You," the bright fluorescent lights on the ceiling came on every three minutes or so (signaled by a text-message chime) and reliably startled the audience. In the dark, we had been surrounded by cool video images of wedding rings in enormous close-up, made into monuments that rotated and pivoted almost exactly as they would on the Home Shopping Network. It was while watching HSN, in fact, in a hotel room with his boyfriend on the way home from a family wedding, that the artist began to conceive this show.

A second impetus, Fogel says, was having recently received an actual paper letter from a friend, such a strikingly novel act, and once so commonplace. He began poring through piles of his old letters for resource material, notes from friends and ex-friends in the days before electronic communications supplanted nearly all paper writing.

These letters are anguished and embarrassing, written to Fogel on the eve of the collapse of this or that relationship, using what museum director Bill Arning calls "hostage-taking language." They are emotionally manipulative while pretending to be nakedly honest. They are in fact both hilarious and embarrassing to read. "There is no hope," says one, "that you will change, or become real, or ever care about me."

Like the rings, they are made into monuments, blown up to four feet tall and painted on canvas. The video rings and the painted letters both comment on rarity and temporariness and value. You can almost hear the HSN barker urging us to act, there are only a few left at this price, and time is running out.

In fact, the lights stay on for just about 30 seconds before switching off again, so reading the letters becomes a time trial. In darkness, the video projections offer the only illumination. They are comforting, coolly pivoting, cast as silhouettes, then gleaming in full color before brilliant green and blue backgrounds.

Then you notice that the rings are rather ordinary looking, scuffed -- a couple are missing their stones. They belong to the women in the artist's family. As tokens of legal marriage, they come already heavily weighted with symbolic significance, that false promise (or threat) of eternal and changeless love, or else ownership. The letters, meanwhile, expose a way of life and love that many gay people recognize and honor, that love changes or grows or fades. When the lights come on, it's time to grab your things and go.

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