Mary Jane Jacob had planned to select 25 works for the ARC Gallery’s exhibition “Money, Money, Money.” She ended up choosing 50. Apparently, a lot of talented artists feel strongly about the topic.
ARC Gallery, a volunteer-run nonprofit in River West, asked Jacob to jury “Money, Money, Money” last year. (It was safe to assume that Jacob—the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s executive director of exhibitions, a former chief curator at the Museums of Contemporary Art in both Chicago and Los Angeles, and a renowned independent curator of public art—had the relevant experience.)
After sending out a call in October 2008 for art that examines money from personal, political or aesthetic points of view, the gallery received about 120 submissions from all over the U.S. Jacob found more than 40 percent of them worthy of display. She persuaded ARC to hang them salon-style—i.e., crowded together—in about 1,100 square feet of gallery space. “It’s going to be jam-packed, but I didn’t want to cut out work because the quality was there,” Jacob says, adding, “The theme—we so get it.”
Don’t worry if money’s a painful subject right now: The show’s artists approach it from diverse perspectives. Some respond to “money as physical currency,” Jacob explains. New York–based illustrator Stephen Barnwell, for example, contributes a parodic two-dollar bill—signed by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney—supposedly printed by the Empire of America. The reverse side of the convincing forgery bears an image of George Washington crossing the Euphrates; the founding father’s dignity is slightly compromised by the oil barrels bobbing nearby.
Since cash, as Jacob points out, “passes through our hands every day,” our currency’s complicated imagery is simultaneously familiar and little noticed. This dichotomy gives visual statements like Barnwell’s their power. Jacob admits that, as a curator of contemporary art, she doesn’t normally think of realistic renderings as “avant-garde.” But this exhibition showed her that traditional methods can be ideal for tackling contemporary issues: Barnwell succeeds in forcing viewers to consider what the dollar says about the U.S. because he replicates it so effectively.
Plenty of artists, however, acknowledge that most of us think of money in terms of what it buys. There’s no better symbol for the greed and status seeking that brought about our economic catastrophe than the McMansions that Bay Area artist (and M.B.A.) Donna Wan photographs in her eerie “Dream Homes” series (pictured). Other artists, such as Chicago-based ATYL, focus on the roots of consumer desire: The glossy billboards that dominate her photographs of Hong Kong remind viewers that we’re constantly bombarded by ads.
Jacob says several works comment on how quickly our possessions lose value, highlighting “waste and the garbage that consumes our environment,” while others emphasize the exploitative labor practices that ensure our flow of cheap goods. Jennifer Weigel’s devastating photograph Massed-Produced Patriotism does both: A shelf of landfill fodder emblazoned with the American flag—toothpicks, rubber balls, teddy bears, plastic leis—sits beneath the sparkly gold legend MADE IN CHINA. Similar concerns fuel ARC’s concurrent show “N.A.F.T.A. (Not a Fair Trade for All).” The mixed-media installation by Fred Lonidier calls attention to conditions in Mexican factories.
Most of the pieces in “Money, Money, Money” are what Jacob calls “two-dimensional”: photographs, paintings or works on paper. But she’s proud of the range of media, which also includes video, ceramics and two performances during the opening reception on Friday 9. Jacob wryly suggests yet another good reason to see the show: “It’s something you can do for free.”
“Money, Money, Money” opens Friday 9, 6–9pm at ARC Gallery.