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The Art of Controversy 

1822: A Project by Stephen Paul Day and Sibylle Peretti at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) should not have been controversial. But controversy found it in the form of a daily paper review that some seemed to feel was shockingly over the top. Apparently the reviewer was outraged because a conceptual installation sometimes billed as "a response to 9/11" did not appear to be literally about 9/11. Beware of metaphors and creeping conceptualism!

Still, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about. I knew from an earlier interview that 1822 wasn't about the 9/11 attacks, and while it's the artists' first major local collaboration, much of it reflects themes seen in their previous solo shows. Peretti's stuff tends to be sweetly strange, a surreal, gothic romanticism based on her fascination with the children depicted in old German medical texts. In Children's Playroom, they appear on oversized toy blocks. Thanks to some digital magic their diseased or deformed features have been made whole again, though you'd have to read the fine print to know that anything was wrong in the first place.

Another room has a pre-fab building called Marcel Duchamp's Garden House, with a collection of their dadaistic handmade books and various Duchampian items. Outside, more of Peretti's strange children gaze out from glass jars like eerie undersea creatures, but the tone is more modern in another room, where composite obit photos of adolescents killed by guns are overlaid by a poem. Another poem appears in horizontal snippets along the walls of the next room where each line is accompanied by one of Peretti's peculiar expressionistic ink drawings on a napkin. For those not familiar with her work, this may not be enough to go on, but for her fans this is vintage Peretti.

Day's contributions include some display cases filled with ironic artifacts and a rather abstract video, among other things, although his touch is evident throughout. As a show, it reflects their shared interest in glass and found-object sculpture, but it's also more nebulous than their previous solo efforts. Day and Peretti individually excel at creating environments that become unique other worlds, journeys through the looking glass. But, in contrast to Peretti's darkly poetic romanticism, Day's forte is a much more cerebral, or sardonic, exploration of cultural icons, and here neither approach seems fully realized. 1822 sometimes appears vague or tentative, as well as poetic and intriguing.

What the artists actually proposed when the CAC offered them a show last September was "a response to the space and the time frame ... a kind of entertainment machine that functions in some way to alter one's way of questioning." The title, 1822, is a whimsical play on 911 x 2, which Peretti said was inspired by the timing and the mood of vulnerability, not actual terror attacks. As the opening date grew near, the CAC increasingly turned to the 9/11 angle to publicize an otherwise hard-to-define undertaking. Appearing in the show brochure as 1822: A Project of Stephen Paul Day and Sibylle Peretti, it was billed in the press release as "1822: A Response to 9/11," which the daily paper interpreted as "1822: a 9/11 tribute" in its listings.

The accompanying review set forth a litany of complaints about conceptual art and 1822's lack of any literal connection to 9/11, and then rather remarkably concluded that it was "probably the worst show of the 2002-2003 season" -- in advance! Never before had a critic claimed clairvoyant powers to condemn an art show in such harsh terms. Soon the street was abuzz with comments on the commentary. Had it crossed a line? Was it prejudice, malice or merely a scorched-earth response to a misunderstanding? All of which made me wonder whether a show that generated such extreme reactions might not have packed a bigger punch than I thought.

Meanwhile at Space Gallery, Bunny Matthew's racy Art for Heterosexuals show of beautifully if lewdly rendered drawings of pop-culture heroes raised nary an eyebrow despite being purposely controversial from the start. Even soft-porn hors d'oeuvres (tuna salad breasts and genitalia-shaped cream puffs) served by topless maidens at the opening failed to elicit any special notice from jaded New Orleanians. Now if only Matthews had thought to show cryptic little drawings on napkins accompanied by lines of poetry ... .

click to enlarge 1822: A Project by Stephen Paul Day and Sibylle Peretti speaks more to violence in the aftermath of 9/11 than to the event itself.
  • 1822: A Project by Stephen Paul Day and Sibylle Peretti speaks more to violence in the aftermath of 9/11 than to the event itself.
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