Grammar of the Elite
Imagining power at the Gallery Project
by Stephanie Douglass
What do the rich and powerful have to say?
As a recent incident proved, one way to learn what the elite talk about is to stash a video camera behind a votive candle and a vase of flowers at a $50,000-a-plate political fundraiser. That's the sneaky method. A more honest approach presents the work of more than thirty local and national artists asked to illuminate "the language, networks, and power of the informal rulers of America: their obfuscation and mystique, ownership and control of institutions and power structures, and the determination of context in which we all function." Such is the premise of Gallery Project's current exhibit, Grammar of the Elite, vast and engaging in its imaginings of a clique that runs the world.
So who are they? One longstanding answer, provided by Detroit photographer Eric Smith, is old white men in pinstripes. In his black-and-white archival print Who Rules America, Smith shows us a seated row of crisp-suited men, one engrossed in a newspaper, its headline posing the question that is also the photograph's declarative title. Considering this image is like swallowing a spoonful of raw honey--delicious, then cloying--the symbolic reality so pure and dense it makes your teeth hurt.
For an objective look at the exclusive relationships among the elite, there are New York City-based artist Boris Rasin's sharply detailed penciled portraits of Masons and Skull and Bones members. Additionally, a laptop open to San Francisco designer Josh On's interactive mapping website theyrule.net reveals the dizzying business ties between board members of the top 1,000 companies and influential think tanks in the United States.
Settings designed for the masses by the elite are rendered in the striking juxtaposition of Columbia (MO) photographer Joe Johnson's photographs of the prismatic interiors of Reno casinos, and Menomonie (WI) artist Mike Tarr's minimalist sketches of housing subdivisions. Both Johnson and Tarr capture the sharp edges and straight lines of professional architecture, and, in doing so, underscore the imposed order and
control of such manufactured spaces.
One of my favorites in the exhibit is Ann Arbor-based artists Robin Wilt and Stan Mendenhall's Pecking Order, a series of diptychs that compare human and chicken hierarchies. One features, on one half, an illustration of a tutu-wearing chicken en pointe, and on the other, a pictorial tier of dancers, ranging from the topmost "prima ballerina" down to "pole dancer" and the lowly "community theater reunion." An accompanying QR code allows smartphone users to view a short video of Wilt and Mendenhall's chickens feeding, with the "elite" asserting their supremacy and claiming choice food scraps. The parallel between us and the fowl is clear: fall in line, or get pecked.
But who knows? The chicken may yet inherit the earth.
The exhibit runs through November 18.
[Originally published in November, 2012.]