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Loud and Clear

Finally, an art show gets political.

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To circumvent Dante's doom there should be lively public debate on these issues, and a vast mobilization of dissenting voices has indeed occurred. But the art world has stayed largely silent. So it's heartening to see Plant Zero Project Space's exhibit "On Message: Art for Our Time" confront the crisis directly in a non-neutral fashion. Make no mistake: "On Message" is a passionately partisan show — pro-left, anti-right, anti-war and anti-Bush. That's one of its strengths. Curator Alyssa Salomon has assembled solid works by local and national artists that range from good to exceptional.

Several pieces address the roots of war culture. In Gregg Carbo's "Two Liters with Toys," a glass vessel containing oil and a sedimentary layer of military toys, elegantly displayed on a wrought-iron stand, evokes childhood, science class and yuppie décor — associations that interface unsettlingly in a work about war for oil. Clark Whittington's "King Spoil" — a meticulously crafted pair of board games that allow players to bid on the spoils of the Iraq War or drill in the Arctic — relocates world conquest and ecocide in the spin-the-spinner-and-draw-a-card domain of children's games where, frankly, it's long been at home (Risk, anyone?).

In Jorge Benitez's "Homeland Mythology" series, iconic Middle American images of home and security — a white picket fence, a perfect home, an assault rifle — are painstakingly rendered in what look like blueprints for a neo-fascist theme park. Outrageous satirical notes (the rifle is called "The Righteous Avenger 500 Family Defense System") in an equally fussy calligraphy complement the drawings' quiet bombast.

Other works are less rigorous, but just as engaging. Mary Holland's "Groupthink" — six coloring-booklike prints of Dick Cheney, a dead bird, Condi Rice, a swarm of bees, Dubya himself and some clouds — is as restrained in its execution and associations as Benitez's work is over-the-top. And "Early Spring," a trio of prints by Tanja Softic, hauntingly documents the first days of the war by superimposing line drawings of war planes and weapons over monochromatic fields of flowers and blossoming tree buds.

In an exhibit brimming with exemplary works, three pieces stand out. In their "Swords into Plowshares" series, Christopher Humes and Noah Scalin mold red clay into handgun-shaped seed balls — each representing a Richmond homicide — and "plant" them in sculptural installations. Here, dozens of clay guns rest atop a long V-shaped, soil-filled planter, waiting to sprout and symbolically transform lethal weapons into flower beds. In Jerry Spagnoli's "Photomicrographs," details of photos of a baseball stadium crowd are dramatically enlarged. The resulting images — diffused, vaguely human forms essayed in a sinister gray pointillism - make a chilling commentary on our era of surveillance and suspicion.

"Orchestrated Gesture" by Whitney Lynn may be best of all. Two video tapes play in endless loops. One shows the president waiting for a standing ovation to subside so he can deliver his State of the Union address; the other shows the crowd, cheering and "spontaneously" jumping to its feet. Each clip lasts only a few seconds but remains engaging long after the initial gag wears off.

You laugh at Bush's odd facial tics and shifting expressions as the crowd erupts, absurdly and repeatedly, like a Roman throng cheering their despot at the Coliseum. But then your thoughts wander, and you scrutinize the face of the internationally feared president. You try to understand him and the people who admire him. But there are no answers, and the questions, like the video loops, never end.

The consistent quality and relevance of "On Message" make it one of the strongest art exhibits of the year. It would benefit greatly from explicatory notes that clarify the concepts behind some works and describe the technical processes used in others. Such facts needn't dumb down the show — they could enrich the visitor's experience by answering basic questions in lieu of a catalog. But this is minor criticism for a show which might save us all from the hottest places in Hell.

Or even better, from four more years of you-know-who. S



"On Message: Art for Our Time" runs through Nov. 10 at the Plant Zero Project Space at 0 East 4th Street. 726-4442



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