By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat January 23, 1997
The media as the message
Noted media pundit Marshall McLuhan once said "the medium is the message." What, then, to make of an artist who crafts a new medium? Photographer, digital artist and UA professor Kenneth Shorr has crafted a witty, cunning and somewhat abrasive show for the Joseph Gross Gallery.
"Surgically Induced Childhood" divides roughly into two parts, one composed of a sequence of large format dye-transfer prints and the other made up of a series of photographic prints. These "synthetic" images don't rest easily in any genre.
The dye-transfer prints combine vintage 50s photos and illustrations with bold, brilliant type similar to Soviet propaganda posters and the stark designs of Communist-era "realist" art. The blazing colors, bold-type slogans such as "If You are Menstruating, You Must Register" and schmaltzy 50s naturalist photos leave little subtlety to be found.
Between each of the ink jet prints are small, official-looking plaques bearing slogans such as "NO NON-COMMERCIAL EXPRESSIVE ACTIVITY."
These wild conflations of hip 50s retro-images, bizarre Orwellian statements and eye-straining colors seem a little tough to take at first. A closer inspection reveals that these pieces are just a step or two beyond today's popular "grunge" typography and advertising, as seen in Spin, Wired, or Mondo 2000. Retro-chic is the standard mode. If you ran a few of these pieces in magazine format, most readers would simply assume they were "teaser" ads, to be explained in coming months by the onslaught of the full ad campaign.
Unframed and untitled, perhaps to emphasize the "disposable" nature of digital images, these oversize compositions use the hallmarks of computer-generated imagery (pixelation, artifacts) to convey an industrial, mass-produced feel. The "lifted" (Shorr's description) images, cribbed from 50s industrial and medical magazines, form an incongruous, often hilarious contrast to the pseudo-Stalinist slogans. In a piece that features the slogan "When She Says Size Matters, She Means It," the targets of Shorr's commentary become clear: the faux cologne ad satirizes fashion advertising and the name of the cologne is "Apartee"-French for apartheid.
Slightly more troubling is Shorr's inclusion of recognizable company logos in several of the pieces. Nike's swoosh, BMW's circular badge and many others crowd together in small blocks like medals of honor. Seeing these everyday symbols of capitalist normalcy go up against Fascist all-caps slogans raises a curious question. What if these symbols of our society, corporate logos that we buy and wear with pride, were used against us? What if forces of espionage and peril hid behind that benevolent swoosh, or the camera eyes of Big Brother tracked your progress through the shopping mall? What if BMW logos contained tiny transmitters that allowed you to be monitored at all times, or they took DNA samples upon your purchase of a car? The prisoners of Auschwitz were lured into the gas chambers by the promise of a shower; could our corporate logos be co-opted as to lead us to our doom?
You might think this is a little unlikely, too fantastic. Shorr seems to argue that it has happened already. When people thirst after corporate logos and buy them to award themselves status, they practice a form of totemism. When the shaman wears the lion skin, he gains the ferocity of the lion. When I wear Mike's shoes, I gain (symbolically, at least) his speed, skills, and prowess. It's a primitive form of magic, and we practice it every day. When you buy a corporate logo and wear it as a sign of your affiliation with that company, you grant it a certain power over your life and destiny. People have been known to kill each other just to obtain the proper symbol-bearing shoes or clothes. When these symbols are worth more than human life, who's to say Shorr's vision of the future is so farfetched?
The second series of Shorr's work is also abrasive and disturbing in a different vein. These manipulated black and white prints, some splattered with paint and scratches, feature odd, murky images of bodies in peculiar positions that are often associated with strange machinery. Sepia-toned photographs of constructed sculptures and scenes seem to be doorways into a dark, often grotesque world with few easy answers or definite conclusions. Not for the faint of heart, these nightmare images seem to take the fascist world of the posters to the next logical step - into the home.
There is also a smaller piece worth some attention. In a far corner, an ordinary bulletin board festooned with photocopied material hangs innocently, just as in most classrooms at this school. A closer look reveals the text of a New York Times article about a mock battle that took place in Arizona simulating a worst case scenario: Mexican citizens rushing the U.S. border. The soulless and cruel descriptions of recommended "procedure" in case of such an "emergency" reminds us that though we may dismiss the ravings of lone pamphleteers warning of black helicopters and NATO takeovers, these fantasies are just amplifications of the existing truth. Whatever horrible injustice by our government you can imagine, "they" have thought about in exhaustive detail. Shorr's commentary about the article is sharp, funny, and as penetrating as his pictures.
"Surgically Induced Childhood" runs through February 20, 1997 in the Jospeh Gross Gallery, next to the UA Museum of Art. Shorr will present "a monologue with visual aids" on January 30th and February 6th. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and Sunday.