Commemorative Objects by
Wearley Studio Gallery
Royal Oak, MI
Mary Douglas is always ready to give us a view of Americans who, through material and intellectual culture, collectively shape our national identity. ls she mocking the foibles, stereotypical visions, and prosaic dreams expressed in pop culture memorabilia, or is she honoring the fundamental need of humans to surround themselves with objects which have meaning to them, even if they are ugly or ridiculous objects? She suggests that souvenirs are no less authentic than the art found in museums, because each is a cultural “product.” Commemorative objects represent our fascination with place, serve as mnemonic devices, and perhaps are true definitions of broad cultural values, Douglas creates objects which have a deliberate ambiguity because of their visual reference to these humble manufactured trinkets, yet are also a denial of them because they are individual and handcrafted.
ln her work, Douglas flirts with interpretations of sculpture, craft, landscape painting, portraiture, and even national identity by recontextualizing public monuments and tourist memorabilia with her own revisionist history. Most of the objects in the exhibition ricochet visually and intellectually between personal decorative objects which grace domestic spaces to public political monuments which shape our collective understanding of American history.
One work of domestic memorabilia and public portraiture is Mt. Rushmore Tiki (1997), a giant fork with the original exotic heads on the stem recarved into portraits of the four presidents. What does a Polynesian-style tourist trinket have to do with Mt. Rushmore or the four presidents carved there? This irrational mix of cultural icons is available in almost any national tourist attraction. (Why would visitors want a miniature china tea cup painted with the Hoover Dam-to fondly remember sipping Earl Gray tea while watching the hydropower generators?) Douglas uses sentimental historical and patriotic assemblages of identity to critique the hierarchies that have elevated art in museums over manufactured
trinkets, yet does not question the voice of authenticity or individual vernacular expression. Her sarcasm illuminates the way official museum culture fosters the same protection of power which official political culture manipulates to unify national Ioyalties. Equally, her painted plates reference ordinary decorative domestic objects which become quietly subversive on closer inspection. How bucolic is the landscape painted on (Rebel Flag), l-40, North Carolina (1997) if you are the African American driver approaching the pick-up truck with a Confederate flag hanging in the back window?
The copper foil rubbings of carved public monuments are the most ambiguous and poetic works in the exhibition, even as the prefabricated molding frames maintain their reference to the ordinary. These works suggest little skilled craftsmanship, using the “found history” marker as the tool, and even less creative potential for subject matter, limited to monuments already erected. And they raise the question, who are the politicians who decide who or what is worthy of lionizing through public monuments? lt would appear that Americans believe wars and their heroes are most worthy of commemoration.
Time is, Time 77as (1995). The presentation of an allegorical mill scene on a church cemetery marker pressed in copper foil, appears to be society’s moral barometer of a personal yet public monument equally perverse to those erected to honor slaughter. The message appears to preach to the dead who lie beneath it. Of course, it is really meant to instruct those still living, not the dead. Yet when this scene is pushed through the back side of a sheet of copper, the carved allegorical elements, and text are reduced to very transitory images, simultaneously lifting off or receding into the surface of the medicinal metal. As such, the images are a powerful reification of death and spirit, while the golden light playing across the folds of copper creates a finer metaphor for virtue and grace than the original stone marker ever could. Douglas demonstrates she is empathetic to the grief and need which motivates humans to mark the grave of a loved one, yet suggests her own way to improve upon the moral statement found therein. The same could be said about all of the works in this fine exhibition.