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The Contemporary presents Suzanne Opton's Billboard Project: SOLDIER

On a somewhat lonely stretch of Marietta Street among a row of neglected and converted industrial spaces, a billboard sits above the pink stucco box of an adult entertainment club. The billboard features the head of a dazed-looking young man with a military haircut, lying sideways on a slab surface. The single word "soldier" occupies the wide empty space to the right.

"Bruno" is the work of New York-based photographer Suzanne Opton, and is presented by the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. But the billboard isn't an ad for the show; it is the show – Opton's Billboard Project: SOLDIER.

Work on such a colossal scale has precisely two options: succeed magnificently or fail monumentally. Unfortunately Billboard Project: SOLDIER fails utterly as art, proving inadequate to its medium and surroundings.

"Bruno" is one of nine similar billboards being shown more or less concurrently around the country that feature soldiers recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Opton's work is also appearing in Denver and Houston, but not Minneapolis. According to the New York Times, CBS Outdoor, which rents out the billboard space, canceled the Twin Cities' five images for being too "disturbing" to drivers. The move raised suspicions that the company was trying to spare the sensibilities of the Republican National Conventioneers who stormed St. Paul in August.

But the bellyaching says more about Minnesotans' weak stomachs than about anything revelatory in Opton's work. The image invades the advertising space only to be clobbered by the power of advertising's familiar visual language. The sexy fashion lighting, the impeccably tasteful font choice – "Bruno" appears more like an overwrought and slightly inappropriate Drakkar Noir ad. If the message is that war is being sold to all us dupes as a glossy product of fetishized capitalism, then, yeah, I got that on page one of my copy of the Yahoo Lefty Handbook.

Billboard Project: SOLDIER comes across as an almost entirely political gesture with little of the internal paradox that makes successful art sing. Blogs and newspapers serve the interest of political discussion much better than arty billboards, and so it's no wonder that the press accounts of the work are far more thrilling than the work itself.

For a lefty art critic, the expectation is to say, "It pissed off the Republicans; it must be good!" But it's not. It's the wrong medium. That it pissed off the Republicans is just a happy accident.

 



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