Il Duce Does Wal-Mart

You can't accuse "Illegal Art" of false advertising. Most of the 40 or so works in this uneven but provocative exhibition, now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, share the dubious distinction of having inspired lawsuits or at least the threat of lawsuits.

There's no posted introduction (an odd oversight, given curator Samantha Salzinger's usual attention to such details), but the text panels for the individual works repeatedly make the point that laws regarding copyright and intellectual property have gone way beyond their original intent. Now, ironically, they inhibit rather than encourage free expression.

The artists represented in the show have taken on the challenge inherent in this situation with varying degrees of brazenness. A small three-part installation in the main gallery documents one of artist Packard Jennings' impressively elaborate attempts to address the issue.

According to the text, Jennings created "a collection of handmade objects in the guise of mass-produced commodities. The products were covertly installed in their relative Wal-Mart departments around western New York and Minnesota. Each piece explores an aspect of Wal-Mart's brand of retail, advertising, and/or product origin."

For this piece, Il Duce Action Figure (with receipt from Wal-Mart and DVD) (2000), Jennings meticulously made a Benito Mussolini action figure in packaging that uncannily mimics that of other similar Wal-Mart products. One case displays the "toy," another presents the receipt for its purchase, and a five-minute excerpt from a half-hour video (recorded surreptitiously) chronicles Jennings' attempt to purchase the miniature Il Duce at a New York Wal-Mart.

It's hard to say what's funnier, the action figure itself (the back of the package plugs others in the series, including Walt Disney, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Rudolph Giuliani, and Sam Walton himself), or the video clip, which features a vaguely bemused checkout clerk trying in vain to scan the item, then trying to get a price check on it before completing the transaction.

A second Jennings work, Fallen Rapper Pez: Prototypes (with letter correspondence with Pez Candy Inc.) (2001), similarly documents the artist's campaign to pitch a line of Pez candy dispensers depicting Tupac Shakur, Easy-E, and Biggie Smalls.

Other works take a subtler approach. Heidi Cody's American Alphabet (Subvert) (2000), for instance, spells out the word "subvert" with a series of wall-mounted lightboxes. The joke is that each letter is taken from the logo of a well-known brand — the "s" from Starburst, the "r" from Reese's candy, the "t" from Tide laundry detergent, and so on. The text notes that, at least for now, corporations have been unable to gain copyright protection for individual letters.

The idea of transformation is evident in many of the works in the show. Laura Splan literally makes pharmaceuticals such as Prozac and Thorazine all warm and fuzzy by turning them into gigantic capsules fashioned from latch-hooked fabric. Ray Beldner's The Big "O" (2002) re-creates a letter from artist Gary Indiana's famous Love by sewing countless dollar bills together. The iconic image of Colonel Sanders' head becomes the source of a mandala in Aric Obrosey's The Symbolic Lotus of a Thousand Colonels (1987), an oil painting with a text panel that notes: "A requirement of Buddhism is the total extinction of desire. The goal of advertising is to create desire."

Artist Natalka Husar took on the publishers of Harlequin romance novels by photocopying the covers of books with such titles as Never Call It Loving, Cinderella After Midnight, and Strangers May Marry, then painting over the cover images with her own replacements in oil. Harlequin, of course, threatened legal action.

Eric Doeringer takes his cue from the street vendors who sell Rolex knockoffs and the like by forging copies of works by well-known contemporary artists, then peddling them outside galleries and museums in New York. The two included here, from a series of more than 80 called "The Bootlegs," reproduce works by Elizabeth Peyton and Damien Hirst. The artists Doeringer "appropriates" apparently get the joke; at least one gallery owner has not been so amused.

Such zealously guarded brands as Disney and Mattel are irresistible for some artists. Wally Wood, who was among the original illustrators at Mad magazine, was an early Disney antagonist with his 1967 black-and-white poster Disneyland Memorial Orgy. It features, among other things, a Snow White who appears to be on the verge of being gang-raped by five of her dwarves (Doc is busy sodomizing Dopey nearby); Goofy having his way with a tarted-up Minnie Mouse on a bare mattress; and Captain Hook in drag as one of the onlookers at Tinker Bell's stripper act.

The poster, which is actually tame by today's standards, was published in The Realist magazine by perennial rabble-rouser editor Paul Krassner, who learned from a Disney insider that the company declined to sue Wood because the publicity such a suit might generate would make it a no-win situation.

Mattel wasn't as prudent in 1999 when Tom Forsythe made Food Chain Barbie, a pair of color photographs of Barbies in blenders and Barbie heads on skewers in a fondue pot. The company sued and, after a series of appeals, ultimately lost and ended up paying the artist's hefty legal fees.

D.C. Comics has likewise failed to suppress Mark Chamberlain's 2005 watercolors that offer alternative interpretations of Batman and his cohorts. How Bout It, Penguin depicts the Dark Knight in a compromising position with his nemesis. Robin on Steroids presents a buff pretty boy who would be perfectly at home on South Beach, while Languid Robin is less in-your-face but equally homoerotic.

The Art and Culture Center's tiny first-floor elevator foyer has proved to be a perfect spot for video installations. For this exhibition, we get three that were among the top 10 best short subjects as designated by Indiewire and Artforum magazines in 2003 and 2005, respectively. Mike Nourse's Terror, Iraq, Weapons (2002) is an unnerving three-minute montage that highlights George W. Bush's use of those three terms (and variations thereof) to "brand" his political escapades. Michael Colton's Puppy Love, also from 2002, is a one-minute clip of a feisty bull terrier enthusiastically humping a stuffed animal.

The exhibition culminates with a trio of videos. Brian Springer's hourlong Spin (1995) collects unauthorized satellite footage of various politicians tailoring their spiels for different markets, and Brad Neely's Wizard People, Dear Reader (2003) is an unauthorized "re-envisioning" of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Neither has much bite.

The third is Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, the legendary 1987 film by Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, who uses Barbie dolls to tell the tragic story of the anorexic singer's rise and fall. The filmmaker neglected to get the rights to the Carpenter songs he used in this brilliantly subversive work, and so it has remained largely unseen for nearly two decades and is a fitting finale to the exhibition.

But it's the text panel for a video in the main gallery that really pulls Illegal Art's concerns into focus. It's for Jed Horovitz and Greg Hittelman's nearly hourlong 2003 video Willful Infringement, and it reads, in part: "Is copyright an instrument of censorship? Do newer copyright controls suppress the free speech of scientists, artists, and others? Does aggressive enforcement of copyright law inhibit artists today in ways that they weren't in the past?"

I'm not fully convinced that this show offers a convincing answer to any of these thorny questions. That it's willing even to raise them, however, is to its credit.

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Michael Mills