The Museum of Contemporary Art has a reputation for taking patrons back in time with retrospectives of revolutionary artists who have helped shaped American culture. But with its new exhibit, USA Today, the museum has redefined the concept of the retrospective. Rather than exploring just one particular artist or style of the past, the collection boldly attempts to tell the story of America in the 20th century. But this isn’t the wholesome tale that your grandmother would like you to remember. Instead, the exhibit offers a harsh look at some memorable and not-so-memorable moments in American history.
USA Today features works from the ’80s and ’90s by artists who are as diverse stylistically as the topics they address. Artists like Jim Shaw, Andreas Gursky, and Greg Stimae tackle complex issues like freedom of expression, militarism, social injustice, dynamics of race, and problems with globalization. Each installation, painting, and performance piece confronts an issue that is controversial and often difficult for Americans to accept as a part of reality. These works capture important social and political moments that are often written off as insignificant points on the historical timeline. And because of their obscurity, our perception of the historical importance of these moments hinges on how well they are portrayed in the displayed work.
Among artists who portray elements of underground American culture, Dennis Adam is one of the more successful. Unlike many of the works in the exhibit that are abstracted to the point of absurdity, Adam’s photographs are direct but still leave room for interpretation. His piece “Patricia Hearst—A Thru Z” recounts the kidnapping of wealthy heiress Patricia Hearst and the media frenzy that ensued. Like many forgotten historical gems, the Hearst kidnapping reminds viewers that culture can be perceived very differently from decade to decade. Adam’s piece features various photographs of Hearst, recording her transformation from heiress to guerilla warrior. “Patricia Hearst—A Thru Z” is a jarring look at the power media, government, and the family have to manipulate an individual’s identity.
Another noteworthy work is Greg Stimae’s “Untitled From the Recoil Series.” Stimae’s piece consists of a collection of photographs of families practicing shooting rifles. While this may seem fairly normal (at least in Texas), what makes Stimae’s work so provocative is that the subjects wielding the rifles are not adults but rather children and young adults. The untitled photographs document the disturbing trend of younger people learning how to use weaponry that is often too large for them to control. Each of the pictures’ subjects menacingly point their guns at the viewer, begging the question, “What would you do if a child held your life in their hands?” Stimae’s piece reflects an American subculture that is inherently violent, regardless of what the NRA says.
Other artists in the exhibit take a nostalgic view of America’s lost history. David Wojnarowicz’s painting “Untitled (Buffalo)” depicts three buffalo falling from a cliff in the American West. Wojnarowicz’s somber look at the lost age of American wilderness carries a sharp criticism of the changes that have been wrought on the American landscape. Andreas Gursky’s photograph “Chicago Board of Trade II” is another sad reminder of the loss of an iconic American institution, although here Gursky’s concern is more economic than cultural. Taken in 1999, the photograph is a vivid evocation of the end of the economic boom of the ’90s and the beginning of the U.S.’s economic tailspin. The bustling power brokers making enormous profits portrayed in the photograph aren’t a common sight on Wall Street lately, but Gursky’s work also serves as a reminder that with this economic gain also came a loss of identity for many traders.
While there are some dazzling moments in USA Today, for the most part the exhibit lacks continuity and seems a little tired and contrived. Many of the artists have tried too hard to “modernize” their works, and in the process of abstraction, have lost the viewer in an array of odd objects. Most of the issues addressed are undoubtedly important but through overexposure have lost any shock value they once had. The MCA has brought back some definite winners that keep USA Today interesting, but it appears that the museum should stick to its roots. Though some of the pieces showcase a different historical perspective, much of the exhibit tends to stick to the history books, and maybe it’s just my lingering disdain for my high school history teacher, but really that’s just too boring to work.