Zwirner: Satire succeeds at MFA show

It’s always astonishing when a piece of satire manages to reinvigorate a sterile issue.

“Branding Natasha,” a video by Michael Mikulec ART ’11 on display at the Second Year MFA show at the Green Gallery, does just that. The video begins with a young man — presumably the artist — speaking: “The point of this exercise is to try to identify your visual identity and to put that somehow into a logo.” What follows is a question-and-answer session between a man and a young woman, known only as Natasha. The artist’s purported goal is to arrive at a reduction of his interlocutor that will result in a logo.

Cliché alarm-bells begin to fire almost immediately: Criticism of social or self-branding networks is so widespread that it’s difficult to take seriously. But the first few questions in the video — “How would you define yourself?,” “What are you?,” “What do you offer the world?”— and Natasha’s confident and funny reply — “I’m real … I give reality or just human nature” — begin to force aside the doubts that this video is just a trite criticism of social media.

Without being overly moralizing, Mikulec exposes a fundamental, and often overlooked, tension inherent to the act of branding oneself in any way. The piece doesn’t call attention to the difficulty or dangers of self-representation, nor does it criticize the isolation that social networks can incur. Rather, the video seems to ask: What good is a logo when it inevitably ignores the fact that you’re a real person? Natasha says it best herself: “Why would I ever need [a logo]? I’d feel limited. I hope I’m dynamic.”

The problem is no longer moral but formal: How do you effectively flatten something — a person — that exists in many dimensions? Maybe the trick, which modernist painters realized more than 100 years ago, isn’t to attempt the illusion of depth, but to embrace the flatness of the medium and instead to create something that exploits it. Maybe a piece of art instead of a list of interests and character traits accompanied by a photograph. Even if the work of art does not describe Natasha, it would inevitably be more human than the brief description and six different capital Ns that comprise her logo.

Another effective piece of satire-cum-criticism at the exhibit can be found in the lowest level of the Green Gallery, against the wall by the stairs. Here, Christopher Page ART ’11 has mounted a bizarre table on the wall, similar in form and design to the kinds of wall-mounts that usually hold Christian relics or icons. It has rough stones painted on it and depicts a serene natural scene, complete with clouds, grass and trees that evokes its early Christian counterparts.

But the strange object also has a painted hole, like a urinal, and a pipe painted underneath it. The reference is obviously to Duchamp’s 1917 piece “Fountain” — a urinal signed “R. Mutt 1917,” probably a pun on the German word Armut, for poverty. Duchamp’s piece is an icon of modern art, and Page has taken that quite literally: He has turned it into a twofold icon — both of modern art and of Christian religion.

Interestingly, Page’s urinal-icon is also covered in painted wounds, as if injured, and one cannot help but think of the numerous abuses of Duchamp’s famous urinal since its conception.

There are many more exciting pieces to discuss in this show — Andy Maas’ ART ’11 mesmerizing photo-montage of people holding the sun; Joe Graham-Felsen’s ART ’11 disquieting white, cage-like sculpture; and two excellent photographs of a young boy by Mathew Grubb ART ’11, just to name a few — that anyone halfway interested in art at Yale would be remiss not to go. It’s a very complete and impressive display of the art by School of Art students.

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