String Theory

The Jack Fischer Gallery is a nice surprise. If you like checking out art exhibits in San Francisco then you’ll eventually wind up visiting the 49 Geary St. building. Unlike the many other galleries on the upper floors, its entrance is slightly askew, the interior feels less formal and businesslike, and paintings occupy every available space: leaning against the walls at floor level and sitting flat atop a table surface. The eclectic arrangements give it the ambience of a workshop rather than an office. The interesting desk in the corner and portrait above the doorway (complete with antlers!) add a Wunderkammern appeal.

The Miju exhibit definitely feels at home here. We find children straight out of ’50s era Dick and Jane books wandering thoughtfully through nightmares, choosing animal heads for dolls that sprout tree limbs. The paintings are full of tottering stacks of props collected from the propagandist bric-a-brac of all eras. Surreal indeed, but not quite Surrealism. Boys with spindly stork legs and carnival wagons impossibly overloaded with statues, crowned birds and banners may remind one of works like Dalí’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, but the indication that we have parted company is built right into the title of the show Effigies and Demagogues. Whereas Surrealism delved into our subconscious to reveal what lay hidden, Effigies parades a grotesque array of familiar looking monuments and personages that suggest shameful reminders are staring us right in the face, indeed they are often celebrated.

The real power of many of the works is that they rarely play their cards close to the chest. In Destiny for the 21st Century Manifested a carriage driver with the air of a huckster goads two figures with a whip to bear his cart of peddled wares, strapped down memorials to sleepy-eyed dead soldiers, a television and a hatchet-bearing Uncle Sam. Flying above is a banner inscribed “Imperialism For Ever.” In the distance a figure has thrown open a curtain to reveal that it’s the end of the road, or rather, that all the old rhetoric is leading us down an all too familiar road. When Arnold Schwarzenegger became the Governor of California, comics bemoaned that satire was now useless. The joke had become the reality. So too does Miju demonstrate that surreal doesn’t even begin to describe our continual blindness to the signs around us that broadcast our manipulation. All the effluvia of past generations’ posturing is self-evidently silly now, those busts of Bonaparte for instance. Why do we still jump at the crack of a whip? Why does it still seem so convincing?

The motif of the puppet master, represented by disembodied hands tugging at the strings is evident in a number of the paintings (if you want to get on my good side, incorporate puppets into your work). Yet again, it may seem like too loaded a symbol to make work, but its incorporation is actually quite complex and many-layered. Perhaps it’s a consequence of the unique nature of the collaboration that is Miju. According to the gallery’s website, Miju is actually two artists working in concert, and quite possibly working at odds which only serve to deepen the layers of meaning. In Bombaster, a woman is seen in a posture of entreaty towards a descending gentlemen who seems to have a bad case of the bees. Blissfully unaware that he sports two heads, both of which bear a self important expression of arrogance, he continues to yammer away while another individual pulls his strings. Perhaps he is emboldened by the marionette in his own hand, thinking himself to be the one in control. But all strings, from the marionette to his two heads lead back to the puppet master. Even the dangerous bees are regurgitated, spliced ultimately back to the deft manipulation behind the scenes. One can imagine one half of Miju, either Michele Muennig or Juan Carlos, adding a detail to this work only to have the other step in, grafting on a complimentary aspect that changes or redefines the relationships seen in this work altogether.

We may be easily swayed by all the trappings that lend legitimacy to the next bad regime waiting in the wings and the show as a whole is a catalog of many signs and symbols that evoke authority from military uniforms with their gaudy medals to the stages and scaffolds that represent the soap boxes of political hopefuls. But none of the offerings in the show is completely pat about who’s to blame, or rather, just as you size up one work you find another that talks back to the previous one, leaving the former no less enlightening. In Shallow Cause for Optimism, two children arrive at the site of an enormous hand suspended in the air, puppet strings dangling from its fingers. The boy looks on in trepidation as to their right an enormous seated girl busily knits away at the strings, her head engulfed in fire. It is not just the strings that are being provided by the girl’s handiwork though, the blurry smoke ascends to the wrist of the floating hand and it’s quite possible that she has conjured it up. Those seeking power never need to look far to find the means to manipulate us. Our hatreds and fears are often the fuel that get the engines of power running. Throwing fresh kindling on our fires is a sure fire way to get the approval ratings back up. In some ways we create the monsters we (hopefully) come to abhor.

Effigies and Demagogues is a heady mix of the unreal and the all too familiar. Miju has managed to carve out a symbology that is strange enough to engross and baffle yet not so opaque that it remains a luxurious oddity. There are no doubt a myriad of meanings to be found in the works on display. Just as Miju is a dialogue between two people there is a sense that the artists are counting on you as the third collaborator to help elucidate what at first glance seems mere dream logic but slowly becomes hauntingly recognizable. Crammed as the pictures are with potentates and panjandrums, it is we who must often bear their loads and many of the works are studies not just of demagoguery but of our pleas of innocence or of our quiet complicity.

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