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Exhibition of Works by 16 Artists Explores Origins, Motivations of Power
Eva Grubinger, Crowd, 2007. Tensabarriers and paint. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view, Berlinische Galerie / The State Museum for Modern Art, Photography and Architecture, Berlin. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

CHAMPAIGN, ILL.- Unofficially sanctioned corporate malfeasance, pre-emptive wars, torture, misinformation, government-sponsored spying and other routine assaults on civil liberties. None of the above paints a pretty picture of life in the 21st century.

And yet, Judith Hoos Fox and Ginger Gregg Duggan, the curators of the exhibition “Under Control,” which opens Oct. 23 at the University of Illinois’ Krannert Art Museum, believe these activities and practices have inspired and spawned some provocative art-making over the course of the past decade.

“As usual, artists are the ones out there being prescient and reflective,” Fox said.

She and Duggan, who work together as a team called c2 (curatorsquared) and have curated past exhibitions for the U. of I. museum, are presenting some 30 works by 16 of the world’s most perceptive and compelling contemporary artists. Through the work assembled – which includes paintings and drawings, video, animation, sculpture, installation and multimedia work – the curators hope to engage gallery-goers in a visual and intellectual exercise focused on questioning the origins and motivations of power and control in our culture.

“The artists whose work is represented in ‘Under Control’ slip into the proverbial smoke-filled back room to question or reveal where control lies,” Fox and Duggan write in the introduction in the exhibition’s companion catalog, designed by Studio Blue, Chicago.

While artists ranging from Hans Haacke to Barbara Kruger have visited the subject of control in the past, the curators noted that these earlier generations of artists tended to be more concerned with power and control from the perspective of how it pertains to individual identity. Fox and Duggan have shifted the current discussion to investigate the motivations and policies of governments, political organizations, corporations and other organized power structures that seek to restrict or otherwise oppress individual thought and behavior.

Fox said the idea for organizing the exhibition goes back a couple of years.

“When this came together, we were gearing up as a nation for a presidential election and were at the end of an administration in which secrecy abounded and transparency was not available,” Fox said. “The issue of control was fairly frequently on our minds.”

Among the works in the exhibition that illustrate the national preoccupation with elections and the democratic process most directly is a 35-minute, continual-loop video by the Spanish performance-art duo Los Torreznos (Rafael Lamata and Jaime Vallure). While much of the work in the exhibition has a serious underlying theme, several pieces – including the “Election Night” – also use a tongue-in-cheek approach to deliver a message.

Fox described the piece, which features what appear to be spontaneous dialogues between Lamata and Vallure, as “completely mesmerizing, but also very funny.”

“The two guys are sitting there in ornate chairs as if they’re in a debate, delivering lines to a Flamenco beat. It’s presented in a stream-of consciousness format where one will say a politically charged word, often a name … like ‘Nixon’ or ‘Goldwater.’ And the other will respond with a hilarious come-back word. It has a wonderful kind of cadence to it.”

Humor also is present in South Korean artist Jeon Joonho’s “The White House,” a computer animation consisting of an enlarged projection of the reverse side of a $20 bill. As the animation unfolds, viewers observe a small figure approaching the nation’s symbolic home with a ladder. The figure climbs up the ladder and begins to systematically cover up – or “white-wash” – the windows of the White House.

On the more sober side are two paintings by one of the exhibition’s arguably most recognizable artists, Jenny Holzer. Her large-scale, oil-on-linen paintings depicting declassified government documents replicate actual memos down to the smallest detail. In “Detainee Summary 2,” nearly every word on the document has been redacted. From a distance, the resulting piece resembles a black-and-white abstract painting.

“Instead of studying the brushstrokes in these monumental images,” the curators note in the catalog, “we find ourselves questioning everything: Who issued the orders? Who chose what text to black out? And, more significantly, what is in the classified documents?”

Perhaps the most familiar form of government and institutional control for many who view the exhibition will be Eva Grubinger’s installation “Crowd.” It features those ubiquitous crowd-control devices called TensaBarriers, which are most prominent at airports, theaters, banks and other public venues.

“We willingly zig-zag like sheep through countless numbers of these things,” Fox said. “And as we are herded through, we so willingly are complicit in this control.”

Yet another piece in the exhibition that evokes the experience/ordeal that airport travel in a post-9/11 world has become is Hito Steyerl’s “Red Alert,” a series of three identical, pulsating video projections on plasma monitors representing the U.S. government’s color-coded terror alert system. Steyerl intentionally pays homage to the 1921 monochromatic work of artist Alexander Rodchenko, Fox said, and equates the intensity of the red on the screens with “the color of contemporary fear itself.”

While the artists exhibiting in “Under Control” most definitely communicate a point of view, Fox emphasized that the exhibition itself does not editorialize nor project prescribed perspectives such as right vs. wrong, or right vs. left.

“We are simply presenting the dynamic that if someone is in charge, there is a victim and a perpetrator,” she said. “This (body of) work makes it unclear if you are the prisoner or the guard.”

Krannert Art Museum | Judith Hoos Fox | Ginger Gregg Duggan | Under Control |

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