Flash without fire

Is New England better than the DeCordova’s Annual Exhibition?
By GREG COOK  |  May 13, 2008

VENUS: Yana Payusova’s magic-realist cartoons are finely rendered, but her characters, all with the same exaggerated eyeshadow and bags under their eyes, are, well, repulsive.

“The 2008 DeCordova Annual Exhibition” | DeCordova Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln | Through August 17

Slideshow: Images from the 2008 DeCordova Annual Exhibition

The aim of the DeCordova Museum’s Annual Exhibition is to round up “some of the most interesting and visually eloquent” New England artists. If that’s what the DeCordova’s Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, Nick Capasso, Dina Deitsch, and Kate Dempsey have actually found in the 11 individual artists and one collective they’re featuring in the 2008 edition, the result is a depressing report of the mostly bland state of art here.

You’d think an exception would be the Boston collective the Institute for Infinitely Small Things, which by local curatorial and critical consensus (including me) is making some of the best art here these days. But those folks’ brand of conceptual art, which seems so funny and rascally and trenchant in tall tales passed by word of mouth and Web sites, falls flat here. Their formats suffer in a gallery. Shelves are lined with copies of the Institute’s The New American Dictionary: Interactive Security/Fear Edition, which professes to redefine the vocabulary of the “War on Terror.” It’s an acid satire of the Bush administration’s penchant for redefining terms like “torture” until they’re meaningless. But books don’t work well in art galleries, and if you crack these open, you’ll find that most of the words have been left with blank boxes for you to create your own definition. It’s an anti-climax.

A modest video shows Instituters, dressed in their trademark research lab coats, carrying piles of white boxes labeled “unmarked package” around Chicago last May in an absurdist quest to interview people about their post-9/11 fears, from lack of money to urban crime to terrorism. “I feel like somebody’s trying to make me feel more scared,” says one woman. The piece that works best as a gallery object is a Soviet-propaganda-style poster in which the Institute offers to transfer its patriotism to any interested foreign buyer in exchange for plane tickets to the buyer’s country and logistical costs. The transaction requires the parties to share an American drink and a local drink, repeating “those drinks until we all are drunk. At that point the transfer of patriotism will be complete.”

Swampscott’s Mitchel Ahern also addresses “War on Terror” lingo in linoleum-block-printed banners in the stairwell running from the lobby to the second floor. The text-based banners resemble letterpress prints or an ambitious A.C. Moore stamp-pad project. “I was dreaming of concentration camps.” “Don’t vote — you may be committing fraud.” “Mission Accomplished.” “Blue states secede.” “Free Martha ([Stewart].” The messages are not novel, but they are charmingly cheeky. A pair of scrolls reproducing texts from versions of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road fill a narrow three-story-tall wall. They’re just illustrations, but if you’re a fan of the book, they’re appealing ones.

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