THE TITLE CHARACTER in action in “Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear.”
The star of New York painter Nancy Chunn's epic installation "Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear" at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit Street, Providence, through April 15) is the fabled fowl — you know, the one who mistakenly thought the sky was falling when an acorn bonked her on the head and ran off to warn the king, only to be tricked by a fox, offering a shortcut, into becoming the critter's dinner.
In six large "scenes," each composed of more than 40 bright, cartoony, satirical slapstick paintings, Chunn's idiot chicken wanders a contemporary America of greed, collapse, and free-floating anxiety. A ship crashes into an iceberg in a bathtub; a hand with a knife lurks behind the shower curtain; an alligator pops out of the toilet. In the bedroom, a wolf hides under the bed, curtains catch fire, skeletons burst from the closet, and the chicken is threatened with arrest for removing a mattress tag. Then traffic snarls the intersection of a road, including the Grim Reaper driving a tanker truck spilling oil, a crash test dummy behind the wheel of an ambulance, and Osama Bin Laden wielding a rifle in a car filled with bombs.
HIGH ANXIETY A detail from Chunn’s Scene IV: The Bedroom.
At a hospital, an ambulance runs over a bird, horses and knights operate on Humpty Dumpty, a med flight helicopter burns, doctors juggle a heart in surgery, a coffin bears the sign "denied coverage," a mom has 16 babies, people cry in a billing office, and a vault is filled with gold. Finally "Poortown" offers a burning house, a burglar climbing in a window, shops of "closeout fashions," people protesting banks, prisoners escaping from a crashed prison bus, people buying guns at a drive-through, and a nun warming her hands over a trashcan fire at a tent shantytown.
It's an encyclopedia of American fears — real and imagined — since September 11, 2001. It's funny, but in a tired, predictable way. And Chunn's cartoons, which she swipes from the Internet, recomposes by computer, and copies into her paintings, have the cruddy and generic style of clip art, which may be intended as a reflection of America today, or may be just cruddy and generic. Ultimately Chicken Little is a simplistic and inaccurate analogy to describe our country over the past decade. The chicken's imagined problems blinded it to a real threat. But we have actually endured 9/11, our stalemate wars, Hurricane Katrina, the economic collapse, global warming and our ailing health care system. Our problem is that the sky really is falling and we've bungled the response.
TAKING IT TO THE STREETS The steel drum band goes punk in a still from Deller’s video.
London artist Jeremy Deller, who won Britain's big Turner Prize in 2004, delves into the industrial decline of Manchester, England, in his small show "Manchester Tracks" at the RISD Museum (through May 6). A video shows a steel drum band he commissioned to play Joy Division and Buzzcocks tunes, relocating the post-punk/alt-rock that emerged in the financially depressed white community into the bright, clear exuberance of a black immigrant steel drumming. And in doing so, Deller tells a story of an evolving city.