Buy and large

Exhibit explores our devouring desire for more stuff

Sometimes it seems like the whole world is fronting.

Fronting: "Acting like you are more, or you have more than what really exists. 'Casey drove around the rented car acting like it was hers. She was straight fronting'" - www.urbandictionary.com.

The ironic excess of the hip-hop generation, of bling-bling as armor and things as everything, has come to reflect an outsized version of our own hyper-consumptive culture. Objects are now our talismans, believed to ward off pain, insecurity, fear and mortality. Fronting has turned pathological, with piles of swag stocking our overburdened larders. Our consumption has swallowed us whole.

The Atlanta College of Art Gallery exhibition Maximum Flavor is a meditation on the bling-bling and a money-defined identity as a phenomenon of African-American culture. Maximum Flavor also points to an uneasy reality: that living large has become the only kind of living, and it is an across-race pursuit.

In Nicole Cherubini's photographs of domestic interiors, every surface is heaped with stuff. A buffet groans under the weight of casseroles, serving dishes and pie plates. Referencing the still-life paintings that once advertised the bounty of the aristocrat's milieu, Cherubini illustrates how today, everyone can take part in material plenty. We celebrate not just our good taste, but our ability to endlessly consume.

Ornamentation is emphasized in Cherubini's ludicrously overworked clay vessel "Gem-Pot, Red; Vanitas #1," which is encrusted with fur, gold chains, rings and a whole riot of decorative froufrou. That jar is us: flashy on the outside but empty inside.

Flashy abundance is reiterated in Mickalene Thomas' paintings of sexy black women whose lingerie and Afros are encrusted with gazillions of sequins. These hip-hop odalisques dazzle, but like so much in American culture, the dazzle is all seductive surface.

The whole idea of fronting, and the way our identities have become enmeshed with what we wear and what we buy, is beautifully articulated in photographer Nikki S. Lee's work. The Korean artist has built her deserved reputation by adopting the look and attitude of a variety of subcultures: yuppies, poor white folk, East Village punks.

For Maximum Flavor, visiting curator Isolde Brielmaier presents Lee's incursions into skateboard culture and her impersonation of a fierce hip-hop chick in darkly lined lips and Nefertiti eyeliner. In Lee's onion-peel layers of truth and fiction, she is faking it to blend with her chosen subculture and look more real. The work illustrates the complexity of our identity masquerades, and how we can assume any guise we want in a free-floating world of endless consumer possibility.

It's nice to see the edginess of Maximum Flavor's attack on fakery and consumption, especially at a time when the art world often feels dominated by the same decadence that informs the "real" world.

In the old days, you could go into an art gallery and feel the artist's sense of fury or at least confrontation, a gauntlet thrown to the outside world and all its shoddy appeals. But now, many contemporary artists apparently want to be a part of that world of showmanship, easy irony and spectacle.

Bucking such vacuity is what makes work like Hank Willis Thomas' so thrilling. Thomas' ink-jet print "Absolute Power" - a play on the ubiquitous Absolut vodka ad - is a necessary provocation. The work makes a queasy connection in a world where truth is separated from packaging.

Inside the phallic bottle is the infamous overhead view of a slave ship in which African bodies are arranged to use cargo space effectively. Thomas makes a disturbing time-tripping statement about all kinds of corporate efficiency.

More than any work in Maximum Flavor, Thomas' challenges us, asking us just how much we will buy.


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