For kicks, Elvis Presley once shot his television. In a famous 1975 performance-art piece called “Media Burn,” the experimental art and architecture collective called the Ant Farm upped the ante by heroically driving a funky spaceship car through a wall of TV sets in San Francisco. To observers, it looked like Evel Knievel had suddenly become political.
An edited film of that event plays on a (ha, ha) television set in front of the actual stunt car, a gussied-up 1959 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz called the “Phantom Dream Car.” It’s one of many cultural artifacts on display in the second installment of the American Dream series at the Belger Arts Center. (The first, American Dream: In Design, closed about a month ago.) American Dream: In Question is a more focused show than the first (which had a wayward feel), but it’s no less enjoyable or eclectic.
In some ways, the show seems simply to be a good excuse to show off the Belger’s ample collection — not that we’re complaining. Still, it’s hard to ignore the less-wholesome aspects of America presented here.
Sharing space with two other automobiles in the first-floor gallery is “American Dream: We Like the Cars That Go BOOM!” in which St. Louis artist Moses has outfitted a black Chevy Trailblazer with 250 speakers and an iPod attached to the underside with Velcro. The iPod plays only the bass, though, making it entirely conceivable that this piece could go into an American Nightmare exhibit as well. Moses gives his car a license plate reading “AMER-DRM” — official permission to be garish, loud and self-indulgent.
Near the elevator is Ed Massey’s “Corporate Ladder,” a mixed-media piece that was controversial in 1990. A figure of a mail-room clerk stands at the bottom of a real ladder; at the top is a CEO who’s kicking off a climber below him. In between are minority workers. The statement against corporate America is pretty clear. A nearby TV plays video of viewers’ original reactions to the piece: “It may be junk. It may be art. It may be too real.”
The second floor divides the show into two rooms. One houses the wonderful and amazing “United/Divided” by University of Kansas industrial-design professor May Tveit. It’s 78 feet long and uses an overwhelming color scheme of red, white and blue, but it’s also deceptively simple. Tveit uses only a table, 100 or so metal work stools and countless embroidered name tags laid out in alphabetical order. Slyly mingled among strange or exotic names such as “Hiroshi” are corporate-speak terms: “CEO,” “bottom line,” “reduce.” Tveit assembles these colored tags on the table in waves of patriotic color. It’s graceful, still and neat, but the arrangement is threatened by the industrial overtones of the steel chairs and the factory-made name patches lined up like items on a conveyer belt.
In the second room are William Christenberry’s mysteriously grotesque Ku Klux Klan lithographs, which put the exhibition’s “In Question” theme square in the viewer’s face.
A quote by Christenberry serves as a sort of disclaimer; he says that teaching at Memphis State in 1962 prompted him to make drawings that expressed the “abhorrence” of the KKK. In “Pointed Male,” the masked man’s face is reduced to the cold, sharp shape of a triangle point. “Dream of Fear” is even more peculiar. Against an all-black background, an anonymous hood sits on shoulders to form an alien face, showing how American dreams, then and now, are infused with an ugly fear lurking just below the surface.