Tuesday, March 2, 2010

REVIEW: Three Exhibitions at the Fleming Museum in Burlington

by Stephen Orloske

In the past month and a half three exhibitions opened at the Fleming Museum. Andy Warhol: Fahionistas and Celebrities, Views and Re-Views, Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons and Storied Objects: Tracing Women's Lives in Vermont. These exhibits span a century, from the 1960s back to the 1870s, of pop, politics and gender. The effectiveness of each exhibition, however, is not equal.

Andy Warhol: Fashionistas and Celebrities presents encased photographs of Versace, Muhammad Ali, Georgia O'Keefe and the like. Part of the display also shows Warhol taking the portraits, which look small and their process laborious compared to our cell phones, with a Polaroid Big Photo. And, unlike a cell phone, a Polaroid only produces one facet of celebrity, one snapshot to be added to their "aura," while today celebrity is produced with such rapidity that John Mayer can talk crassly in Playboy, Twitter an explanation, apologize on stage and thus YouTube, spanning mediums so quickly that public opinion runs through its outrage, criticism and forgiveness – a celebrity soured, sweetened and declared edible again – faster than it took Warhol to arrange one of his instant portraits. Warhol's ruminations about how it’s impossible for celebrity to cease generating itself are still relevant, but they're starting to look quaint, especially tacked under glass. The exhibit simply lacks the oomph to connect with now.

Re-Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons is a propaganda vacation to the other side of the Cold War zone that separated capitalism from popular communist thought. Every artist in the exhibit is well documented, adding just enough information to expand, but not distract, perspective. And the overt nationalism of a bygone nation soon turns numb, allowing global 20th century political conflicts to come to mind, like women’s suffrage and civil rights. Even the movements of design can be seen as some posters turn modern, others a bit dada. The cartoons employ a familiar wit when lambasting capitalists, similar to American satire directed at noble soviets. It’s entertaining to see familiar characters – stockbrokers are still corpulent, pig faced and enraged by impotence – decimated by steely workers. Even the proletarian heroes look like ancestors of the contemporary Do It Yourself movement. At times you forget these cartoons are Soviet thoughts. Some posters even beg the question, from where did pop culture gobble up anti-capitalist meaning? Was it Hooverville or theGulag? Are we the egg or the chicken?

Storied Objects: Tracing Women's Lives in Vermont, unfortunately lacks much of the promised story. Plenty of feminine and domestic objects adorn the small room, each labeled and their function described, accompanied with a letter, diary or audio excerpt from the women who owned them. But the story between the woman and the object rarely goes beyond how they used it. At best we learn the item was passed along to later generations. Sometimes any connection at all is tenuous, the accompanying letter only mentioning an activity in passing, or, like a manufactured flatiron, the item just sits there, impersonal. The exhibit would still be interesting if it wasn’t such a short trip, plunking you into the museum’s permanent collections feeling teased. And you have the chance to comment on scraps of paper. Near a feathered hat, complete with a parrot’s head, someone remarked, “Doesn’t say if the bird is real.” Another wondered, “Why was it important to her?” Many, it seems, left hungry.

Andy Warhol is on display until 4/12, Soviet Posters until 5/23 and Storied Objects until 9/3.