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Art: Laughing and Thinking

Publico hooks up with Vox Populi for 'Hello Cleveland'

By Laura James · March 14th, 2007 · Visual Art
  Robert Chaney's
Graham Lienhart

Robert Chaney's "Green Hell" is part of Publico's Hello Cleveland.

Walking into Publico this month, you might assume that Paul Coors is jamming away at his gallery on Clay Street for the fun of it. Not so. The music -- what is that, Black Sabbath? -- blares from the back.

It's tempting to walk past it, an old, messy bathroom rehabbed into the experiential work that the artist, Robert Chaney, calls "Green Hell." From the look on his face, you might assume that Coors wants to turn the damn noise off.

Green floodlights hang, twisted from the ceiling beams. Music comes from a little video monitor and a lot of speakers. Everything is loud and noxious, and you feel as if you're stuffed into the bathroom at a heavy metal concert. Depending on your taste, you might want to move in or you might want to escape.

Either way, being inside "Green Hell" is a (temporarily) fun feeling; it really only starts to make sense when Coors talks about the exhibition as a whole: The not-for-profit, Philadelphia-based artist collective -- much like Cincinnati's Publico -- Vox Populi addresses the nature of interactive art.

In Hello Cleveland, the exhibition that runs here until March 24, sound and touch as well as the more obvious art sense -- sight -- come together to make something worthy of investigation.

Vox Populi translates from Latin into "for the people," a titular link to Publico if there ever was one. Both collectives are working toward making sense of contemporary art, for young artists and lay public alike. In this exhibition, Publico has joined forces with an amazingly like-minded group.

But what about the title? Hello Cleveland is not about Cleveland or Philadelphia or Cincinnati or Los Angeles (the announcement card for the exhibition puts Cleveland into the Hollywood sign). It's not about any of those places; it's about all of them.

The words "Hello Cleveland" comprise a famous sound-byte from the mock-documentary This Is Spinal Tap. (And maybe, though Coors can't say for sure, the title is a little tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that Cincinnati and Cleveland -- as well as most other medium-sized cities -- are often lumped together and tossed into the "we don't care about you" pile.)

Popular music is certainly a way to connect with an audience, with many different audiences, in fact. A concert, too, is a full experiential endeavor -- the sounds, the smells, the lights and the people bumping into you. You are immersed in a setting, and that setting is easily a communicative tool.

For the artists in Vox Populi, communication is not a straightforward, didactic thing. They aren't here to teach you anything. They're here to join a conversation.

A wonderful little surprise in the Publico exhibition is Charles Hobbes' "Are You Going to Hell?" It's an interactive sculpture that updates the fortune-telling machines so popular at turn-of-the-century carnivals -- again, a venue for big audiences, one that traveled from town to town.

Put your finger on the cross on Hobbes' machine and wait. Heaven or Hell? It doles out answers at random (I'm going to Hell; Coors to Heaven.) All at once, Hobbes' work takes up a serious issue in a jokey way: What is religion, anyway, and who's in charge of it? The blinking lights inside a manufactured box?

Hobbes isn't the only artist in the collective that deals with serious things. Religion comes into play again in James Johnson's series of tiny ink-jet prints, "When I Was a Kid I Thought Mr. Rogers Could See Me Too." The little photographs are images of the mundane: cars, words, dogs, parties, people ... snapshots of a life. Who is supposed to be watching over this guy? God or Mr. Rogers? Can anyone explain the difference?

Nadia Hironaka's color video, "Scared to Death," also plays on serious themes: murder, stalking, Court TV. Matthew Suib's "Cocked" takes the image of the movie western and copies it verbatim -- something Richard Prince could have done had he thought of it -- and opened it up to interpretation. Again: murder, hyperbole, male dominance. Taken out of context, Clint Eastwood looks like a joke.

Many more artists are included in Hello Cleveland, and they all have something sarcastic to say. I love it. Grade: A

Hello Cleveland is on view at Publico through March 24.


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