Feature: Wednesday, June 5, 2003
Cold Wired Sentiment

Jennifer Pepper tackles internet culture and concept art in her latest exhibit.


Jennifer Pepper is one of those uncategorizable artists whose painterly abilities function as the foundations upon which her less painterly, more conceptual flights of fancy can stand tall. Her deft hand is obvious in her more traditional works. Her fantastic eye, which we can guess has likely been strengthened by her brushwork, always seems to produce meaningful conceptual art and photography. If we were to situate Pepper somewhere in time, it would be right before Sonya Rapoport discovered computers. At Gallery 414, Pepper uses bits and pieces, sights and sounds of internet culture to transform several cozy chambers into enigmatic totalizing environments. Equal measures of formal beauty and situational wit coexist happily. Many hats should be tipped in Pepper’s direction, for very few artists can do what she’s done here — pull off minimalist painting and conceptual art in a single show, talk ideas without lecturing an audience, and, simply, make you believe she loves what she does.

The high point of the show, “Emoticon,” is worth a doctoral thesis. In the center of the back room hangs a white, cocoon-shaped, vinyl balloon about the size of a filing cabinet, its surface covered with vertical columns of dark gray emoticons (you know — those little faces people make with punctuation marks in e-mails). And through speakers near the ceiling comes the sound of someone typing on a keyboard. The varied meanings a viewer could impose on this piece would, if stacked, reach the tip of a telephone pole. Let’s just say that “Emoticon” is fun to look at: There’s formal beauty in the curvaceous shape of the balloon. It looks soft and huggable. And there’s also a quirky kind of wry sentiment in the sound of keys being tapped — loudly. (Is there anything more annoying?) The softness of the balloon, the harshness of the keystrokes — quite a dizzying viewing experience.

The rest of the show, while not as tasty as “Emoticon,” zips right along. In “Emoticon Glasses,” the palette is the white wall of 414’s front room. A linear arrangement of a few dozen black-framed reading glasses, hung against the wall from black strings so that the lenses face the floor, creates a delicate, touchy mood — unlike with “Emoticon,” you won’t want to touch this piece. Move slightly closer toward the arrangement, however, and you’ll notice that emoticons have been painted, in white, on the lenses. Below each pair of glasses, the wall is covered in projected smiles and frowns.

Shadows are also used to stimulating effect in some other pieces, including “Interface.” The profiles of two men facing each other, nose to nose, occupy the center of the piece, a rectangular cut of glass raised above a sheet of white paper. The images, as they’re drawn in white, are nearly invisible on the glass. The shadows of the profiles are what can be readily observed, on the paper beneath.

The show, according to the press material, abounds in big ideas about internet culture and identity. Well, I’d like to think of these ideas as Pepper’s inspirations, not her themes. Conceptual art can’t answer a single question about anything. It can only raise questions. The questions raised in Recent Work pertain to internet culture and, incidentally, to conceptual art. One question is, are we losing something, something innately human, by relying on e-mail to communicate? Another: Can really smart, really accomplished conceptual art change our traditional, formalist views on art? Can it reprogram years of what we’ve always been taught to appreciate as “beautiful”? I guess the answer to the first question is yes — but who knows? The answer to the second, about conceptual art’s potential to expand the way we meat-sticks look at art: Probably not — there’s no chance that the Sistine Chapel will some day stop being beautiful. So take Kant’s view, that beauty doesn’t matter and that all that does is for a work of art to possess “purposiveness without specific purpose.” Then Pepper’s show soars. Her non-linear narratives, coupled with a complete lack of perfervid expression and froufrou, keep her works from seeming obvious or “arty.” It’s not the quietly formal beauty of “Emoticon” alone that triggers amusement. It’s the fact that big balloons are lovable. A big balloon — situated a certain way, designed a certain way — in an art gallery? Wonderful.

Pepper’s definitely onto something unique here. Her show’s connection to present-day reality speaks to most of us bourgeois babies. The only (tiny) problem is that, like computer technology itself and most conceptual art, Recent Work may prove ephemeral. (QWERTY keyboards — how 1999.) Still, that’s for next year’s critics to decipher. Compared to most conceptual art around these parts, Pepper’s is some of the most tasteful and most “contemporary.” The fact that the balloon might not be a found object but something Pepper designed and had made is exciting. More artists should be calling on their local balloon makers or carpenters or steel twisters for poetic grist, expenses be damned.

Pepper’s most admirable trait: a willingness to resist passing judgment on her subject. She leaves grandstanding and/or stumping at the gallery doorstep. Beating up on Big Media would have been almost too easy, considering Pepper’s estimable talent and Big Media’s evil reputation. Pepper’s smarter than that. She merely lays out the fruits of her mad skillz for your pleasure, thus creating the perfect environment in which a contemplative chap can laugh :) or cry :( or :| think.

Email this Article...

Back to Top

Copyright 2002 to 2022 FW Weekly.
3311 Hamilton Ave. Fort Worth, TX 76107
Phone: (817) 321-9700 - Fax: (817) 335-9575 - Email Contact
Archive System by PrimeSite Web Solutions