Virginia Fleck: Consumed

Holly Johnson Gallery, Dallas

Catherine Caesar

Virginia Fleck, Elmo Mandala, 2010-2011; plastic bags and tape; 36 inches in diameter; courtesy the artist and Holly Johnson Gallery, Dallas

Is shopping a religious experience? Is the mall our contemporary sacred space? Virginia Fleck seems to pose these questions at Holly Johnson Gallery with Consumed, an exhibition of circular collages comprised solely of plastic shopping bags held together with thick layers of transparent tape. Titling her works “mandalas,” Fleck likens her assemblages to the colorful circles used in Buddhist and Hindu cultures to reproduce a sacred environment or induce a meditative state in the viewer.

Indeed the viewer is immediately “consumed” by the intricate beauty of the colors and patterns created by Fleck’s fans and concentric bands of plastic. From afar, they look like heavily patterned and brilliantly colored psychedelic floral paintings, recalling 1970s Pattern and Decoration, a quasi-feminist movement characterized by richly decorated and quilt-like painted surfaces. Closer inspection reveals the plastic bag material and provokes viewers to decipher the bags’ unique language: Fleck’s sacks come from around the world, and many include texts that reveal their site of origin, whether it be Maine, Denmark or Japan. These texts are integral for Fleck, who in conversation emphasizes her desire to “re-script” the words embossed on the bags by juxtaposing various languages and calligraphic marks. In some cases, this re-scripting might even expose some of corporate America’s hidden agendas.

Virginia Fleck, CO2 Mandala, 2010-2011; plastic bags and tape; 60 inches in diameter; courtesy the artist and Holly Johnson Gallery, Dallas

For example, in CO2 Mandala (2010–11), Fleck reveals that the words “John 3:16” are imprinted within the folds of shopping bags from Forever 21 (a U.S. clothing store popular with young women). The Biblical passage cited (if one chooses to look it up) outlines the rewards for Christian faith: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Highlighting these Christian capitalist underpinnings, Fleck’s work also touches on environmental concerns: the bulk of these bags are not biodegradable, a problem she underlines in the title CO2 Mandala, which references the carbon footprint associated with plastic manufacturing. Fleck’s work removes at least a few bags from the landfill while reminding viewers of the enduring residue of our shopping trips.

But these political concerns seem almost accidental, as the true strength of Fleck’s collages resides in their sheer visual delight. Regardless of their commercial origin—or perhaps because of it—Elmo, yellow smiley faces and Target’s red logos create a joyous visual energy. Likewise, Fleck’s process looks innocent; the collages’ construction is made so apparent through the layers of tape that they mimic children’s art. The heavily taped surface actually hinders the optical enjoyment of the collages, but it avoids the dilution of color that occurs when using an iron to adhere the plastic material. Ultimately, Fleck’s work hovers between polish and naïveté, between political commentary and vivid decoration, and between SpongeBob SquarePants and scripture, suspending the viewer in a kaleidoscopic limbo between contemplation and mindless consumption.

Catherine Caesar is an art historian specializing in American art of the 1960s and ’70s, and Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Dallas.

This show will remain on view through March 26, 2011.

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