Michael Zansky: The Reincarnation of Michael Vick (As a Dog)
Ice Box, Philadelphia
Through December 28, 2010
The duality of human nature is that we exist between two poles of existence; the need for redemption and the desire for retribution. In Michael Zansky' exhibition The Reincarnation of Michael Vick (As a Dog), at Ice Box, in Philadelphia, we are shown the Eagle's dog-murdering quarterback in a state of reincarnation; in the process of, if not quite achieving, redemption.
This eerie, engrossing spectacle is presented as something like a Javanese shadow puppet play as directed by Samuel Beckett. In Act I, the first room of the installation, velvet ropes cordon off a tableau arrangement of a miniature figure of Vick on a stand, slowly rotating, while a metal sphere orbits around him, like a Sisyphean stone. A series of lenses reflect and refract the stage lighting of the piece, distorting and inverting the image, while creating a constantly changing shadow of the figure against the walls. The shadow Vick moves and flickers, carrying a football; the projected scene appearing like some kind of prehistoric cave version of a Play-in-Play sports screen. By contrast, the tiny figure seems diminished; the shade versions of Vick representing a prelapsarian memory, larger than life, gone missing.
Act II gives us the canine resurrection; the second gallery becomes a Plato's Cave, where a projected shadow dog seizes the enormous space with a Lockean sense of property. Again, a lensed arrangement of a urethane dog, glass globe, surveillance mirrors and carved wood elements provide the earthly elements. The globe, a reference perhaps to the Judgment of Paris, the mirror to Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait," the wood a nod to The Crucifixion. A Bat-Signal searchlight traces out arcs on the far wall, referencing celebrity culture as well as a metaphysical search for enlightenment. The mirror, like our position when viewing "Las Meninas" allows us to see the actors in the scene, but not ourselves; the mirrors suggest temporal, earthly existence and Vanity. We are positioned so that we only see the impure, shadow version of the reincarnated dog, moving obliquely across the cavernous wall. This mise–en-scene suggests a primitive, or primal, version of what the Dominican Fra Michele da Carcano suggested was of essential importance to art with regard to our enlightenment. "On account of the ignorance of simple people, so that those who can't read…can yet learn…of our salvation," Carcano wrote in 1492, and "Images [are] introduced because many cannot retain in their memories what they hear, but they do remember if they see."
Zanksy's installation serves to remind us of the tautological importance of art; both a record of current events which should be recorded, as well as lessons in what those events might portend. Here, nominally, we have celebutard culture elevated to gallery status; but more importantly we are given the opportunity to deconstruct our process of looking, the better to see.
As audacious as is was for Zansky to tackle Vick on his own Philly turf, it is perhaps more so that he reminds us that within our usual received notions about looking at art there is a long tradition which values this process for its ability to educate on greater levels. Zansky takes apart painterly tropes, with which we have perhaps grown too familiar, and reassembles them in ways which might give us greater understanding.
The role of the Artist/Philosopher has a history; in the last century artists as disparate as Barnett Newman and Andy Warhol have held that title. Zansky's attempt at elevating the sad morality tale of the fallen, now ironically rising, football star reminds us of the works of Voltaire and Hogarth, both of whom used contemporary subjects, played out with pathos as well as humor, to entreat us to think more deeply about our human condition. In our own time we still find ore to mine from this rich vein of artistic thought.
In Zansky’s Platonic kennel, we are reminded of the work of our own satirist Bret Easton Ellis; the searchlight probes the darkness of the gallery, occasionally illuminating the exit sign and locked fire doors. A witty reference, though sad coda, for our Vick's journey. This Is Not an Exit. - Bradley Rubenstein
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.