Constant exposure to billboards, street signs, corporate logos, and a whole slew of virtual advertisements that populate the internet and social media can become somewhat overwhelming. The eye has been trained to compartmentalize the images we see on television screens and even in photographs—comprehending the multidimensional content of a flat surface, as opposed to letting it dissolve into the natural environment. Exhibited on the first floor of O’Neill Library is an installation that challenges the way we absorb media. Walking into the room, which contains an array of digital works by various students, is like a thousand ads popping up on your computer screen at once. The pieces exhibited grab playfully at every cultural icon conceivable, creating a collage of images that teeter between the humorous and political.
The exhibit showcases work from students of Karl Baden, a professor of photography at Boston College. The cluttered yet quiet feel of the project—a splurge of information that assaults cultural icons while hiding inconspicuously behind their general recognizability—is indeed correlative to Baden’s own work as a fully-fledged artist. Every day since Feb. 23, 1987, Baden has taken a photograph of his face against a white background, stringing the images into an animated sequence that shows the effect of time upon the body. Aside from commentary on themes such as the self and aging, the “Every Day” project is impressive for conceptually encapsulating the superfluous abundance of the “selfie” some decades before it was even a social phenomenon.
Likewise, O’Neill’s photographic mixed media collages—measuring just about the size of standard printer paper, though some were formatted cubically—are best appreciated in juxtaposition to one another, from a vantage wherein their individual contents are less noticeable than the dizzying array of colors they present collectively. That they surround the hunched figures of studying students, like some virtual wallpaper that never demands the “audience’s” attention, better suits the overall artistic intention than if each were presented individually. Furthermore, the works are without labels or the names of their creators—just pictorial non sequiturs floating along a pervasive backdrop. The installation gives the impression of having reached into a database of random images, connected only by the cultural currency they embody.
This fragmentation of any single thematic picture works to the exhibit’s benefit in many cases. Political statements are given the same aesthetic grounding as blatant commercial advertising. Absolut Vodka, Air Jordans, and iPhones are lined up against photos of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, or perhaps other objects of fashion that lose all meaning in context of their neighboring visual icons. This actual content is often plastered artificially to a glossy background that makes the object’s foreignness obvious. It is like a (perhaps unintentional) parody of how commonplace these symbols are among their ad-centered landscapes. The posters of films that bear an at-best cursory resemblance are cross-cut into movie mashups whose relationship or string of compatibility relies on the most superficial attributes. One student rearranged the poster for Pixar’s Up to resemble the photograph-within-a-photograph of Christopher Nolan’s 2001 thriller Memento, while another student turned Harry Potter into a stoner comedy on the sheer basis of his name including the word “pot.” Truly creative genius at its finest.
One panel contains a loose association of politically motivated pieces. Whether they were done by the same artist or many cannot be determined. Trump appears in a few of them, digitally altered to look more reptile-like than usual. Another set depicts an elderly lady waving an American flag, with the text “I can’t believe I still have to protest this sh#t” written over her in columns—apparently mimicking the bars of a jail cell. Less cleverly put together is a piece depicting protesters gathered collectively, drawn in the style of a Soviet Union “Workers of the World Unite” poster. The words “Our Right to Rally” are drawn over it, though the artist unfortunately confused the United States’s First Amendment with propaganda from a totalitarian government responsible for the mass incarceration and genocide of millions. This ignorant misstep aside, most of the eye-catching or provocative statements are done tastefully, if sometimes childishly and for the sake of offense. Borat makes at least one appearance in his green thong and jockstrap, showcasing the glitzy ludicrousy of the character.
The section that best encompasses the overall goal of the installation is a series of fashion ads and urban landscapes. Rather than becomingthe sole focus of our attention, the commercial products depicted (mainly Supreme and other clothing brands) aim to embellish an overall atmosphere that generates from the composition, in the phased-out images of models standing against city backgrounds or the drink aisles of grocery stores. One poster shows a face recoiling in two-dimensionally rendered slow motion, the contours of her revolving expression like smeared chalk on a blackboard. Simple iconography plastered against real life images, all of which is seen through the lens of a low-quality camera attempting to become vintage, more “true to life,” becomes the artistic centerpoint of the exhibition, encapsulating in a few well-designed posters what the rest can only do as a collective.
Featured Image by Jake Evans / Heights Staff