Jack the Pelican Presents April 25 – May 25, 2008
I came to see the show, but I missed the militia. They were here at the opening, dressed like revolutionary war soldiers, guarding the artwork. This seems only appropriate for a show titled White Like Me. White like the artist, David Ford. White like the men who founded this country and fought the revolutionary war. White like the face of politics and state-sponsored patriotism in America today.
Ford takes all of these issues to task, and more, at Jack the Pelican Presents in his first New York solo show. Comprised of 14 works, mainly paintings with a handful of sculptures and prints, the exhibition is a brazenly clever, challenging exploration of Americanness. Drawing on cultural references that range from historical to political to pop-culture-contemporary, Ford not only questions conventional notions of what it means to be American but also mixes different identifiers to create a kind of in-your-face cultural mash-up.
As an example, a monoprint entitled “Just Do It” (2007) depicts a soldier firing a musket. Based on appearance alone, the work seems simple enough, but the image combined with the title—the contemporary Nike slogan—makes for a strange cultural connection. Ford challenges us to stretch our imaginations in an attempt to fit the one into the other. Perhaps he is hinting at the way our cultural heroes have changed over time, from war soldiers to sports figures. Maybe he is likening the intensity of contemporary sports events to warfare, or conversely, mocking the competition of contemporary sports by allowing it to pale in comparison with the prospect of real battle.
“Just Do It” demonstrates part of the draw of Ford’s art, which is that it manages to be challenging, thoughtful, and pointed, with just the right amount of open-endedness. Clearly he has things to say, but he’s also interested in letting his viewers do some of the talking, and he has no interest in being overtly pedantic. Of course he does make his subjects of interest immediately apparent, for example, his fascination with militarism and its connection to the American identity. The images of revolutionary soldiers and the employment of a group of performers to act as a militia at the show’s opening attest to that.
The presence of the “soldiers” prompts questions about the value of art as well as the purpose of the military. If soldiers are deployed to stand guard at an art gallery, does it belittle the soldiers’ job, or elevate the art to new status, or both? Wherein lies the power—the militia or the artist? The symbolic performance encourages viewers to think about the importance they accord each. We may laugh at the thought of Ford suggesting that art should be guarded by the military, but he suggests it with enough of a straight face that we are also forced to wonder why the concept is funny—especially when we are the ones who value the art enough to go see it. Why shouldn’t it be protected? Looking at the performance in a larger context, it jabs at the situation in Iraq, where the U.S. government and military failed to guard the National Museum and the treasures it houses. Ford seems to be mocking their failure while facetiously questioning the merit of protecting cultural artifacts.
The militiamen are the beginnings of a line of white males that runs through the exhibition all the way to Tom Cruise, who has a painting named after him, and the artist himself—all images of people who are “white like me.” Even the cultural symbols that Ford employs—mainly American flags and Ford car emblems—tie into the show’s title, if less directly, as examples of white male culture (in addition to the Ford emblem being a witty twist on the conventional artist’s signature). Though the flag and the car company are not explicit indicators of whiteness, they are both mainstream images that connote the dominant subset of American society, which is and always has been white men. The discussion becomes more interesting when you think about the ways in which all of these threads are connected: white patriarchy, patriotism, the American flag, the military.
Interestingly, though, Ford offsets all of this by simultaneously offering a dose of enchantment and exoticism: Four of the show’s paintings depict otherworldly scenes of luscious, colorful flowers and gushing bodies of water. And Ford transports us to paradise, as one of the works is aptly titled, in a remarkably genuine way. His ability to do so in the midst of a mess of patriotism and fake soldiers and Tom Cruise is commendable and suggests further conceptual complexities.
For me, the lush, mysterious landscapes are yet another set of mirrors that Ford reflects back upon his viewers. Obsessions with the far-off East, the unknown, have long been a hallmark of Western culture, specifically white Western culture, and Ford’s nature scenes launched me into a consideration of what the American version of paradise would look like if Americans were able to overcome that deep-rooted habit of projecting their fantasies onto other cultures.
Surveying the symbols that Ford has picked to represent us, it’s no wonder we look elsewhere for dreamy inspiration. But in the paintings, blankets and thickets of flowers often frame the Eden-like scenes and block our way in, leaving us at a distance where we can continue wishing and projecting. What, I wonder, could we aspire to that we can actually reach?
JILLIAN STEINHAUER writes about art and culture, lives in Brooklyn, and is pursuing a master's degree in Cultural Reporting and Criticism at NYU (firstname.lastname@example.org).