Conceptual artists court disaster

Friday, March 25, 2005
By Doug MacCash
Art critic
Don't overlook the precisely painted brown stripe that runs around the perimeter of Acme Gallery at calf-level. Made from thinned river mud, Stephen Collier's "High Water Mark (Mississippi S - - t Stripe)," eloquently implies the threat of flood in our submersible city. It's especially chilling considering that Acme Gallery is on the second floor.
"High Water Mark" is one of the smartest conceptual artworks in the very smart, entertaining and thought-provoking "Natural Disaster" group exhibit. It's also one of the subtlest, overshadowed by more dramatic pieces, such as Jessica Goldfinch's "The Weight of Water" (a balance scale weighing the difference between a human skull and an intravenous bag of algae-stained water), Violet Skye's "Ebola," a lurid green painting of the devastating virus, and Srdjan Loncar's 5-foot-tall mushroom cloud made of Styrofoam coated with fiery color photographs (which only qualifies as a natural disaster, if you allow that humanity has naturally poor judgment).
Artist-curator Jonathan Traviesa, 28, says that the theme of "Natural Disaster" was born of a casual conversation.
"The idea came about pre-tsunami and post-all those hurricanes that hit Florida," he said. "It came about during a late night at a bar with a friend (co-curator Stephen Collier, 33)."
Traviesa says that he and Collier were fascinated by the words natural disaster, which were being repeated so often in the media that they were becoming an abstract platitude. "We sensed that the phrase natural disaster was going to become a catch phrase like 9/11 or terrorism or something like that. We decided that it was a good, general area (theme) for people to work with. The show is very loose, but I think it all fit."
He's right, the show is pretty loose, but not distractingly so. There are oddball pieces that don't seem to abide by the theme, such as Jesse Greenberg's "Mini Binx from Mega Binx," a floor to ceiling soft sculpture stuffed with strange custom-made toys, and Matt Vis' twin cell phones sculpted from Velveeta cheese and Dramamine tablets. But these square-peg-in-a-round-hole pieces are so interesting that it doesn't much matter if they don't fit perfectly in the exhibit. The subject may be a little stretched, but the compatible ironic tone is compensation enough.
That ironic tone is, in fact, the key to the show's success. Unlike other "cause" exhibits, the artists in "Natural Disaster" address world tragedies without sinking into self-serving sentimentality. They may be emotionally affected, but they're still smart-aleck, contemporary artists. Note that even the Red Cross donation can is displayed as if it were a piece of conceptual sculpture, with the letters nfs (not for sale) posted on the price sheet -- nice touch.
Can "Natural Disaster II," which opens April 2, dedicated to the aftermath of global tragedies, be as good?
What: Contemporary artists consider flood, fire, famine, etc.
Where: Acme Gallery, 5700 Magazine St., (504) 891-0357.
When: Today and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6.
Prices: From $375 to $5,000. Stephen Collier's mud stripe is available at $12 per foot, installed.