Art Review: Uneven “Culture Shock” at Torpedo Factory

Art Review: Uneven “Culture Shock” at Torpedo Factory
Artist Brandon McDonald's "Triptych of the Bat Family" (2017) Graphite, Comics, Wood, Fabric.

By Evan Berkowitz |

Kneel solemnly at the light-wood-and-red-fabric prie-dieu. Thumb through the illuminated literature on its shelves, the very objects of a canon and stare up at the saintly figure drawn in pencil onto the central panel of Brandon McDonald’s triptych.

Admire the scenes of life in mock stained glass surrounding his portrait, and try to emulate the two penitent devotees looking up at him from the left and right panels.

Then, ask of him: “Forgive me, Batman, for I have sinned.”

The most successful parts of “Culture Shock,” a juried show at the Torpedo Factory’s Target Gallery that opened Sept. 9, work on this expectation-shattering level, seemingly inspired by its title. They present some assumption, some artistic trope, technique or subject, and render it topsy-turvy.

McDonald’s lovingly crafted panels and prayer bench become an altar to Batman, titled “Triptych to the Bat Family.”

The illuminated literature is a collection of comic books and studies of Gotham’s protector, the stained glass effect is made using backlit panels from the DC Comics franchise, and the devotees are gentle renditions of Robin and Catwoman.

The show loosely fits its given theme of street art, which forms one of the several assumption-shock threads woven throughout. Those threads, and the double-takes they provoke when realized in several expert works, allow the show to live up to its title.

Unfortunately, though, the groundwork needed to manufacture that fantastic moment lays bare the show’s primary failing and highlights several lackluster works by so directly tying them to the great ones.

The curatorial strategy of Juror Mojdeh Rezaeipour (of The Moth’s D.C. StorySLAM and Epicure Café) has some clear triumphs. The trio of works on the back wall speak to one another as a cohesive whole that creates a worthy triptych for McDonald to dialogue with. The various threads are articulate and discernable without being heavy-handed.

They pervade subject matter (religion; President Donald Trump), artistic inspiration (the dots of Roy Lichtenstein; the duotone stenciling of Banksy) and method (computer-created art; graffiti-tag letters), and they often overlap.

Within each, though, the sad reality is that one or two are clearly exceptional while another is comparatively poor. By making it so easy to see the lines she’s drawn, Rezaeipour mounts a lucid exhibition but undermines the handful of artists whose work does not measure up.

Babelon Williams’ “The Last Show on Earth” (2016) Acrylic, toner, pencil on paper on canvas

Take those featuring Lichtenstein-esque BenDay or halftone dots. When Babelon Williams hints at them in “The Last Show On Earth,” they have purpose and aesthetic context within the work’s 20th-century apocalypse.

When Floydetta McAffee uses them in her blatant Lichtenstein knockoff, “How Long?,” they’re poorly executed and ignore Lichtenstein’s restraint as she fills in the background behind them nonetheless.

When a fleeting glimpse of actual Lichtenstein shows up in the background of Michael Holt’s ingenious “Punk, Pop, and Propaganda” — a strategically cut-up “Art in America” magazine issue — the starkness intensifies.

McAffee’s work also pairs unfavorably with the other digital creation in the show, Ron Testa’s 2014 “Bang, Bang.” It uses artificially antiquated pixel-by-pixel “painting” to create old-timey lettering and firearms that perhaps satire the “Wild West” lawlessness of early computing and computer art.

This addition of subtext is often what separates the buoyant from the banal.

One Banksy-inspired artist, Tavin Davis, churns out a trio of carbon copies that do precious

Tavin Davis’ “Bomb Voyage (2017). Stencil on Canvas, Montana Gold Acrylic Spray.

little to build on the British street artist’s work.

The other, Gabriel Pons, transposes Banksy-style black-on-white stenciling over a collage of newspaper and book clippings painted with color fields and scrawled over with musings on the gods of “Fate and Fortune,” from whom it takes its title.

At first glance, the two works that most explicitly comment on President Trump seem to echo this pattern, but further exploration proves that the one appearing less thoughtful is in fact superior.

Sarah Jamison’s “Huge,” (2016). Colored Pencil, Marker, Gouache on Board.

One, “Huge” by Sarah Jamison, is an iPhone-sized colored pencil drawing of the president holding a Pokémon Pokéball and wearing one of the Japanese cartoon’s hats and its character Pikachu on his head. The other, by Carolyn Faulkner, is a 3-D array of painted canvases cut open to reveal artists’ mannequins falling outwards, one holding a stick of Scrabble letters that read “On The Edge.”

It’s called “Trump Tower.” Oy gevalt.

The work is boring, muted, needlessly erudite and, to me, reveals almost nothing below the surface of its cut canvases.

Meanwhile, “Huge,” which one might wrongfully dismiss outright, is more than a cartoon. It’s a comment on our pop culture president and I dare say it cleverly uses Pokémon’s “Catch ‘em all” slogan to remark on Trump’s immigration policy. After all, he’s the one holding the Pokéball.

Perhaps that’s a stretch, but the work allows it.

The religion and spirituality thread manages, mercifully, to escape without blemish.

It gives us Pons’s “Fate and Fortune #2” and McDonald’s “Triptych of the Bat Family.”

Gabriel Pons’ “Fate and Fortune #2” (2015). Collage, Acrylic Paint, Spray Paint, Paint Pen on Panel.

It gives us “Snapgram, Instachat,” wherein Jen Watson masterfully coopts the tried-and-true “Visitation” between the Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth by adding little green-andgrey “typing” indicator bubbles that makes us question how anything sublime could happen in the age of smartphones.

It’s not surprising, given that much of Rezaeipour’s own art incorporates religious themes, that this thread is strongest. But its noticeable success by consequence reveals what missed the mark, too.

The true gems of “Culture Shock” are engaging, clever, beautiful and often fun.

It’s just a pity that such bright-shining diamonds appear alongside works much more rough in quality.

“Culture Shock” runs at the Torpedo Factory’s Target Gallery through Oct. 22. Works listed at $300 to $5,000. Torpedo Factory artist and show participant Michael Fischerkeller will present a demonstration Oct. 12 from 6 to 8 p.m.