Nancy Chunn: Front Pages; Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, New York
A sort of combination time capsule and mixed media installation, Chunn's show proves to be one of the more riveting journalism-inspired works of recent memory. Chunn spent the entirety of 1996 superimposing New York Times front pages with various additions, primarily rubber stamp messages and images, and inked and painted landscaping. The effect, much like the stark pecking order of theTimes' front page itself, can be devastating, heartbreaking, infuriating, and joyous. Necks strained as people looked to see the top of the gallery, heavy with the sense that a year of their lives, the world's lives lay before them.
The early months start innocently enough--the pages are significantly less strewn with Chunn's editorializing and pointed frustration than later months would be. A story about Perot's strongarming of his Reform Party nomination reads, "It's my party I'll do what I want." Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani goat of late March, corrupt and slipping quickly from power, is stamped with a pink-shaded "Sheena of the Jungle." A March 14 story about the Scottish man who gunned down virtually an entire kindergarten class, is strewn with caskets, guns, and "lunatic" stamps.
These early months exhibit Chunn responding in relatively standard ways to the news. How does it make us feel? Occasionally, her take is an unsettling one--the drab black, white, and aged yellow of newspaper print is radically enlivened by her kaleidoscope of color and icons. She is speaking to the kinds of instantaneous value judgments and emotions we draw from the constantly marching state of current affairs. The mini-encapsulations of the news also serve to remind Chunn's audience of the New York Times' cool self-assurance, the sense that the "Paper of Record" brings you "The Information" rather than a perspective. This is perhaps most simply understood on December 1st, a front page chock full of middling stories. Chunn paints a giant red ribbon over the print with the stamp "It's World AIDS Day, Stupid." A fair condemnation for a newspaper so often unconscious of its tunnel vision.
Chunn's commentary is well informed and witty, although not always substantial enough to work. In response to a piece on Clinton's concerns about the booming Columbian drug trade, Chunn stamps, "Juan Valdez Furious." A cute moniker, but not entirely helpful. Chunn gives us no clue as to how she feels about the DEA or the CIA, or our ties to the Columbian government, or the importing of coffee, or the North/South inequities that in many ways drive the cocaine market of the Western Hemisphere. A photograph of the May Oklahoma drought is stamped with "Grapes of Wrath '96." The image is appropriately anachronistic, perfect neo-Dorothea Lange, but like Chunn's reverie, provides us with no subtle distinction between the contemporary farmer and the depression era "Okie." In effect, Chunn's words seem a strange devolution, from comprehensive journalism to tabloid sloganeering. Usually this is a purposeful and refreshing collision of high and low culture; occasionally, though, it's just high concept slumming.
Nonetheless, if Chunn's ideas don't always hit the mark, the overwhelming and exhaustive substance of
"Front Pages" becomes more impressive month after month, day after day. After her initial timorous commentary, Chunn starts playing with the Times' format and her own symbol building in clever and inventive ways. Various political couples (Police Commissioner Howard Safir and Mayor Giuliani 3/29, Commerce
Secretary Mickey Kantor and President Clinton 4/13) earn clown suits, red nose and all, for their unsavory political backslapping. Scores of pink and gray toilet door stick figures are scissored on top of the much discussed March series on the downsizing of American business communities. Brown and black figures high-step their way out of stories on Rwandan refugees. Celebrated figures, the joyous rarities of public life (Oscar winners, election winners, and most prominently, the New York Yankees) get huge stars for heads. The degree of irony varies, but the point is well made--photo opportunity writ large. And, in a more playful trick of the trade, Chunn alters many of May's photographs to mirror canonized styles. Accused Unabomber Theodore Kaszynski becomes a Van Gogh portrait, and a watery search for Valujet survivors morphs into a Monet landscape. Richard Rhem, the Reformed Church minister who miraculously claimed non-Christians could achieve salvation, merits a Robert Indiana "love." It's hard to imagine a more practical way to infuse art with some public meaning.
Chunn's most genuinely poignant work begins on the memorable July 18th front page. That day's banner headline screams the gruesome basics of the TWA Flight 800 tragedy, scattered with Chunn's Botticelli-like angels across the page. They are depicted bearing candles, hovering over the water like stand-ins for the flight's victims. As the story unfolds over the course of the next couple of months (fuselage discovered, remains identified, theories presented and rejected), Chunn re-employs the angel imagery. We slowly see the disappearance of a public mourning, the willful shrinking of an unpleasant story's priority. On the flip side, we also see the vast public and journalistic capacity for a monumental riddle. Chunn uses repeated themes with other topics, but nothing amounts to the power of the Flight 800 story. Judging from the Times, the crash far outrivals any competitors for the title of Story of the Year.
Chunn has created a strangely evocative diary and time capsule, public in its currency and private in its imagination. Given the many public figures stamped with "Shame," the litter of stick figures, bombs and caskets, the sea of dollar bills come election day, Chunn certainly had a better year than most.
New York, New York