The American Dream is as much a punch line as a promise. The famed “rise up the corporate ladder” has given way to parodies of motivational speakers a la Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine and satires of cubicle culture a la The Office. Meanwhile, in a nation once composed entirely of immigrants, “immigrant” has become a dirty word, and home ownership, once a pillar of American promise, has become a pipe dream—as fanciful to millions of Americans as, say, health care and a living wage.
With these kinds of “dreams,” who needs nightmares?
The Riverside Art Museum’s Greetings from the American Dream is a postcard from the ledge of this faltering American edifice. The exhibition, comprising paintings, photography, and conceptual sculpture by just over a dozen artists, offers compelling insight into the trappings of American consumerism, materialism, imperialism and all those other -isms. As a whole, these pieces are more roiling than raging, but that’s not to say their effect is any less potent. As senior curator Peter Frank writes in the show’s introduction, “The artist’s craft eases the jab of the artist’s vision, but makes sure that the syringe still goes in deep.”
Jabbing deep at America’s addiction to materialism is one of these artists’ main goals. David Buckingham’s “Root of All Evil” does so simply, attacking the Almighty Dollar in a piece constructed of found metal welded to look like a series of giant dollar signs. The colorful piece evokes Andy Warhol’s iconic “mass-produced” images of celebs like Marilyn Monroe, and results in what Frank dubs “a visual mantra.”
Of a similar anti-materialist bent is Jay Merryweather’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” The painting portrays a bald gentleman in a rumpled suit sitting beside a wall littered with dozens of corporate logos—Levi’s, Wal-Mart, Audi, Hilton, and many more, a nearly audible clamor of visual noise. The old man stares out at the viewer, his face bedraggled and vaguely diseased-looking. In the distance, a faceless young male wearing baggy designer clothes approaches; we can almost see the iPod in his hand, the spring in his Nike-clad step.
With a quiet palette of soft pinks and muted mauves, Cindy Craig’s watercolor “Gift Time” manages to startle, training our eyes on a department store beauty counter in the midst of an imagined Estée Lauder sale. Flourescent lighting and an overwhelming barrage of signs illustrated with disembodied lips, hands, and eyes make the painting both indelibly real and really creepy. With precise symmetry and stark emptiness—there are no people in the image—“Gift Time” feels claustrophobic, and oddly terrifying. Sure, it’s just a department store beauty counter, and sure, you’ve seen one before. But trust me—stare at this painting long enough, and you’ll want to get the hell out of there.
Merryweather’s other painting, “One More Day to the Shore, One More Day,” is full of blue-eyed longing, and brings a more subtly disillusioned perspective to the table. The painting depicts a car full of wispy-haired, plastic-cheeked youths riding toward an unnamed shore. The kids are all-American types, pretty enough to be in blue-jean commercials. Their perfect, sun-kissed hair blows in the highway breeze, and their faces shine with all the hope and indestructibility of youth. It’s almost the type of painting you could see in some classic beachside surf shop—almost. But there’s much more lurking beneath the azure surface. In the backseat, one of the girls leans forward, resting her arms loosely on the shoulders of an affably-grinning boy in the front seat, and staring out the window. In her eyes there is a look of longing, of expectation, but also of arrested, creeping anxiety. It’s as if she, and only she, has just this moment spotted something strangely afoul in the distance.
By far the most confrontational piece in the bunch is Wayne Coe’s model box series, consisting of faux plastic model kits arranged as if part of a toy store display. Each box is painstakingly detailed and perfectly realistic-looking, down to listing an age advisement on the front (“For ages 10+”). The titles of the kits—“I.E.D. Model Box,” “Human Pyramid Model Box,” “Rescue and Betrayal of Jessica Lynch Model Box”—are shocking enough. But the visuals and the “instructions” on the mock-kits are even more so. The cover illustration of the “Human Pyramid” kit is a replica of one of the infamous Abu-Ghraib images, a guard snapping a photo of a horrifying pyramid of flesh. In Coe’s rendition, a latex-gloved hand gives a hearty thumbs-up from off camera.
On the back of the box, the artist has written the following quasi-educational description: “Human Pyramid: extends symbolically the USA’s military, religious, and monetary enslavement of today’s Arab nations.” The back of the “I.E.D Model Kit,” meanwhile, compares the use of IEDs by Iraqi armies to the homespun warfare of America’s revolutionaries; the kit also contains the following rejoinder: “The U.S. is not a signatory to international landmine treaties.”
It’s a credit to the curator and the artists that there is far too much good stuff in Greetings to detail here. Collectively, these artists show that, founding mythology aside, the American Dream is more like a deadbeat dad than reliable progenitor. He’s all talk and little delivery; more full of promises—and himself—than substance.
Greetings from the American Dream runs through March 10 at the Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 684-7111; www.riversideartmuseum.org. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. $5.