SAN FRANCISCO — "Monuments for the USA" is an exhibition that was partly motivated out of sincere -- and perhaps even severe -- distress.
In the Logan Galleries at California College of the Arts' Wattis Institute, 61 proposals are on view for monuments to important aspects of American society today. Curator Ralph Rugoff invited an international roster of artists -- young and old, established and emerging, predictable and unexpected -- to ponder the complex values and ideals they associate with the United States.
The artists were invited to design the type of monument that they believe the American people need, or deserve, at this particular moment in history.
Why now? Because, the curator writes in the catalog, he harbors "a nagging suspicion that the United States has metamorphosed in profound and inadequately acknowledged ways." Since these monuments are just propositions, which won't be going through any public or committee review, the artists were not burdened by budgetary, technical or ideological considerations.
Not surprisingly, the results are all over the map. Some are ironic, others sincere. Bristling anger is not uncommon. Neither is the passion one associates with an authentic sense of civic concern. Humor turns up; so does sorrow and even paranoia.
Whatever the emotional tenor, though, the best proposals offer unexpected insights into the fog of social norms that describe human experience on any given day. Often they resonate precisely because a viewer knows the work could (or would) never be built.
Take the razor-sharp pencil drawing by Los Angeles artist Jeffrey Vallance. It shows a hybrid structure, part Greek temple and part cenotaph, built of pristine white marble and bronze. A cenotaph is an empty tomb -- a monument constructed in honor of a person whose body lies elsewhere. Inside, Vallance's quasi-cenotaph holds an empty sculpture pedestal and empty picture frames. The sketch is titled across the top in big, bold letters, "Monument to the Unrecognized Artist."
As always, Vallance draws with an adolescent earnestness, pressing down hard on the pencil, conscientiously filling in shadows, labeling component parts for the sake of clarity and paying attention to details with an evident sense of quiet determination. You imagine him hunched over the table as he draws, his brow furrowed and his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth.
Careful penmanship flanks the cenotaph drawn in the center of the sheet, spelling out some simple truths. Few artists receive recognition, even when deserved, and most art school students stop working after gradu- ation.
What makes this monument proposal so compelling, however, is not its lament for an almost inevitable lack of individual success -- that is, for the elusiveness of stardom in our celebrity-mad culture. Vallance is not yearning here for an American Art Idol.
Instead, what's riveting is the way it commemorates a deeper, more disturbing and revealing truth: In American society at large, artists as a class go unrecognized. Essentially absent from daily consciousness, they find their collective memorial in this cenotaph.
Vallance's incisive proposal is unexpectedly moving, not least because of its deliberately juvenile drawing style. It betrays an inescapable solidarity between disaffected teenagers and living artists, who both contend with establishment disregard.
Also powerful is "US," an animated video loop by Yoshua Okon, who divides his time between L.A. and Mexico City. A schematic aerial view of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., all cheerful forest green and liquid blue, sports a pair of colossal, shiny, translucent golden letters, erected on a plot of otherwise empty land that corre- sponds with the location of the White House. The letters are at least 10 times taller than the Washington and Lincoln memorials, over which they loom.
Accompanied by a faint, ominous soundtrack of a helicopter's chopping rotor blades, the video image swoops around these monumental golden letters, which look like corporate headquarters the late Philip Johnson might have designed for the Dallas skyline. (Or think of the infamous, turning Enron sign repeated endlessly on the evening news.) The initials of the United States are bluntly conflated with a vulgar declaration that this monstrosity is us.
Okon's video pictures the power ratio between a contemporary presidency driven by mammon and historical visions of the citizen-leader (Washington) and the savior of the union (Lincoln), which are dwarfed off in the distance. And it doesn't let "us" off the hook for the grotesque sight, out there on our nation's front lawn.
Okon uses video animation to hypnotic effect. The work is at once luscious and repulsive, like too much banana split for dessert.