Artists out to make a minor point should do so quickly and then raise a glass to their own lack of pretense. Sadly, no toast is in order for Primacy, the exhibit at SPACES, in which slender thematic material is fussed over until aesthetic derailment ensues. Paraphrasing Nietzsche: When you fill an entire gallery with testaments to the banality and triviality of rampant consumerism, beware that such banality and triviality doesn't stare back and trivialize your art.
This collection of sculptures pieced together from medical waste and industrial junk is the work of the Cincinnati-based collective known as TODT. The four-artist co-op, whose members prefer to remain anonymous, is named after Fritz Todt, the crack Nazi technician who served Hitler by building both autobahns and armaments. Todt's name evokes the German word for death ("tod"), but far from being a menacing figure, the brilliant engineer was a quiet, withdrawn man who rarely socialized with the FYhrer and who, to the members of TODT, seems to exemplify the banality of evil. "The evil of banality," though, would be a more fitting description for the work in Primacy.
This exhibit could have been something of a plum for SPACES, whose aim since its inception in 1978 has been to present significant new work from outside the region to its Cleveland audience. This is certainly new work, and TODT's position in the artistic firmament is well-established; the group has been together for twenty years, and among its many appearances in reputable European venues was a 1993 show at the Venice Biennale. But significant? Though this exhibit has its share of thought-provoking moments, it's ultimately a series of malevolent and hideously overextended jokes. When the punchlines do come, they're too little, too late.
TODT works in the tradition of assemblage artists like Edward Kienholz, Jon Kessler, and Donald Lipski, who take society's garbage and use it to construct ominous environments that suggest all sorts of creepy things about contemporary life. In the past, TODT--pronounced by its members to rhyme with either "wrote" or "tot"--has tackled themes such as the varieties of paranoia and dehumanization possible in a post-modern world. (One of the group's thematic compatriots is J.G. Ballard, the British author of the novel and cult film Crash, who has written tales about renegade doctors performing euthanasia on healthy but pesky colleagues.) The group has even staged shows devoted to torture. But if Primacy is about coercion, it's of the Madison Avenue variety: no violence to the body, but an assault on the senses and insistent claims made on the pocketbook.
To its credit, TODT cleverly exploits the gallery space to suggest a carnival atmo-sphere, in particular the grandly conceived trade shows of the 1930s and '40s. This device, it turns out, is the glue that tenuously holds this exhibit together. Upon entering the space, one's eye is led down the gallery floor by a series of synthetic flagstones that terminate in a large computer-generated print hung on the wall. The print, titled "Utopia," depicts a futuristic city square dominated by a narrow triangular sculpture in the foreground and an enormous spherical one in the background. The square panels and the print together evoke the New York World's Fair of 1939-40 and its upbeat emphasis on the "world of tomorrow."
In Primacy, however, the boundless optimism of an America struggling to break loose from the Great Depression is replaced by an unspoken dread about where technology has led us since World War II, and what can happen when there is energy aplenty but no desire to penetrate beyond the surface of things. TODT asserts that all that glitters is not good, in part by lending bold colors and novel shapes to sculptures that have ab-solutely no practical use--dressing up these monstrosities just as a car salesman might disguise a lemon with a new coat of paint.
Attractive nonfunctionality is hardly a new concept, of course; making consumers want what they don't need is the point of aggressive advertising. But TODT's additional topspin occasionally makes things interesting. Loathsome ob-jects--severed calves' legs, syringes, lacquered bloody hands, pig snouts, and enema paraphernalia--appear alongside slices of cake, a baked potato slathered in butter, and various floral arrangements. When initial impressions about an object are split between revulsion and desire, and the artist suggests that desire will prevail, you leave the world of Coca-Cola and Nabisco and enter the realm of abnormal psychology. If these things are supposed to be consumer products, one asks, what kind of consumer could possibly want them?
Maybe a depraved Wal-Mart shopper in a futuristic society will be delighted that there's a sale on the 1980s-era ab-flex machine that's been adorned with plastic spaghetti and enema hoses. A stomach-turning contraption to be sure, with the faux pasta suggesting human intestines. Is there a similar deal on the ones that are all in purple, instead of yellow and black? Or what about the baby formula bottle with the French tickler attached where the nipple used to be? Most inefficient. Maybe this is the model for adult babies with sex fetishes.
Thankfully, the approach isn't always this obvious. At times, TODT even seems on the verge of genuine wit. Take, for instance, the untitled sculpture composed of four weedwhackers; it artfully contrasts the implements' rigid verticality with curvy, sculpturally arranged orange wires. When you get close to it, the thing activates--and sounds typically associated with whacking weeds become morbidly funny when jarred loose from their designated function and stuck inside an art gallery. In the weedwhacker piece and others, TODT seems fascinated with the concept of energy that has no constructive outlet. Other variations on this theme, though, are less funny. The metallic contraption which spins an egg at high speed is a case in point.
The inadequate fit between TODT's expressive aims and its methods is partially mitigated by the suspicion that there is a point of view in all this madness. But, though Primacy points the finger at sheep-like consumers who don't see beyond the surface of things, the artists do the same thing. The members of TODT are pitchmen themselves, only what they're selling is a tired concept.
Are we seduced by advertising? Of course, and sometimes we even buy things we don't really need. But this knowledge hardly represents an intellectual thunderbolt. The brightly colored doodads in TODT's own supermarket don't get a free pass just because they're part of an artistic exercise and not an economic one. If consumer products can be superficial, so can art shows. In that respect, Primacy isn't all that different from the Ronco deep-fat fryer gathering dust in the kitchen cabinet.
After all, plenty of art satisfies merely by being beautiful on the outside--so long as that surface is variegated and texturally alive. "My music means itself," a cranky Igor Stravinsky informed critics who demanded an explanation of his work, but his "Rite of Spring" was no less enjoyable for his refusal to imbue it with metaphysical significance. TODT's work is simply too monotonous to survive on surface appeal alone; viewing this show is like having a conversation with someone more interested in making puns than making sense.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, another Nazi agent, this one named "Toht" and bedecked in SS black, approached Indie's girlfriend and pulled out what initially looked like a torture device. A few flicks of the wrist and it revealed itself to be a coat hanger. This is the strategy in Primacy; the evil is made to appear innocuous. Of course, a coat hanger can be used as an instrument of intimidation. And better to get a sharp poke once in a while than be bored to death.
Primacy, through April 30 at SPACES, 2220 Superior Viaduct, 216-621-2314.