by David M. Roth
How many ways can a dollar bill be defaced in the name of art? Cultural Currency, a sprawling exhibition that employs money as a vehicle for social and political criticism, counts the ways. The show, which says far more about currency than culture, contains 167 works by 75 artists drawn from the collection of Davis Riemer and Louise Rothman-Riemer, Oakland-based investment advisors who began amassing money-themed art in 1995 to explore the attitudes we bring to this always-fraught topic.
A potent symbol of American values, the dollar functions as a seductive lure and, all too frequently, a distorting funhouse mirror, reflecting the hopes, dreams, frustrations and aspirations we carry in relation to a transactional necessity that often leaves many of us feeling conflicted – or worse. Scratch the surface of those discontents and out pour feelings relating to race, class and economic insecurity, divisions that continue to cleave the nation into unruly factions.
Thus, it’s no surprise that physical acts — burning, shredding, slicing, chopping and folding––define much of what we see in Cultural Currency. They transform nominally neutral bills of various denominations into charged emblems, reflecting attitudes about what money can buy, what it represents, what influence it wields and what it could be in a world that operates differently than the one we presently inhabit. The exhibition, which is uneven in quality and too large, draws some of its strongest work from what I call Exacto knife savants. These artists use their skills with sharp-edged tools to enact modifications that radically transform raw materials.
What follows are a few highlights, not all of which involve actual currency. Francesca Pastine, for example, turns a yellowed mutual fund page (remember those?) from The New York Times into a spiderweb, denoting lost wealth and the specter of censorship. (Looking at it, I immediately thought of how Joseph Heller satirically portrayed it in Catch-22, in a letter from the battlefront that starts with “Dear” and ends with “Love” – with nothing else in between.) More germaine to finance: the mutual fund summary date, September 29, 2008, shown at the top of Pastine’s piece, represents the largest point drop for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, surpassed only by the market crash of 2020 following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kathy Hall, in Kudzu 2, employs a similarly reductive approach, slicing dollar bills into floral-patterned doilies that seem purely decorative until you read the title, at which point other associations (e.g., creeping gentrification) kick in.
Wall Street, a ripe target, takes a well-deserved hit from Marshal Weber. In a piece called Stevenson Shoes, he attaches worn dollar bills to the soles of tasseled men’s loafers like so much rubbish. It reminded me of a disturbing incident I witnessed in New York involving a homeless man panhandling well-heeled passersby. Most ignored his pleas. But one particularly cruel response — “Got change for a hundred?” – still haunts.
What might money look like in a more equitable world? Sonya Clark answers with Afro-Abe II, a gesture worthy of Putney Swipe. It shows a fiver on which President Lincoln wears a big, bushy Afro, a fantasy whose time has come! If adopted as official currency, it would make the author of the Emancipation Proclamation an honorary African-American and pave the way for the minting of higher-denomination bills displaying the faces of other important leaders – Black leaders. After all, if we’re talking about wealth, American wealth, it behooves us to ask: On whose backs did America build that wealth?
Slavery, the source of that wealth, may have ended in 1865, but war, its close cousin, remains omnipresent. Gyöngy Laky illuminates that sad truth in a dollar-sign-shaped sculpture (The Bottom Line) made of charred wood that obfuscates more than it reveals. However, if you look closely, you’ll see plastic toy soldiers lurking in nooks and crannies with weapons drawn. Their near-invisibility mirrors the seamless integration of war into our economy, a dependency that we have yet to shake despite warnings from everyone from Karl Marx to Dwight Eisenhower. Elsewhere, in a Piranesi-inspired collage made of currencies from around the globe, C.K. Wilde floats the notion that money imprisons us and that the condition is universal.
As for the funhouse-mirror effect I spoke of, Don and Era Farnsworth’s Melting Dollar and Rob Cohen’s One Fifty, One Hundred make it literal. The latter is in an anamorphic lithograph that, depending on where you stand, displays alternating visages of two U.S. presidents — Ulysses S. Grant ($50) and Ben Franklin ($100) – demonstrating how one’s position affects perception and, by extension, one’s net worth.
You could read Marcella Lassen’s Wall Street Burger – a giant pair of gilded hamburger buns stuffed with dollar bills — as a critique of corporate-purveyed fast food if it didn’t so strongly evoke the work of Claes Oldenburg, the Pop Art icon who died last week. On a more sober note, Craftsman Series, a collection of hand tools made of pennies by Stacey Lee Webber, recalls the idyll of pre-industrial America, an era when the ideals of the yeoman farmer held sway. It appears at the show’s opening, spread across a wall. Viewing it again as I exited the gallery, it felt like a soothing capstone to an exhibition that takes the measure of money from seemingly every angle.
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“Cultural Currency” @ Bedford Gallery through September 18, 2022.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.