Originally published in Artweek, June 2000
SURPLUS: Cocktail Party
by Conrad Atkinson at Intersection for the Arts
On the street in front of Intersection for the Arts, one can see fancily dressed people in posh cars looking for parking on their way to some of the hip new eateries that San Francisco's Mission District increasingly has to offer. Along with Intersection, old time residents of this area include next-door-neighbor Centro del Pueblo --a cultural center offering services to a large number of communities, and the Valencia Gardens housing project across the street. As in the past in this neighborhood words of other languages mingle with English, but now recent immigrant families (and artists) are being displaced more and more by ever-wealthier dot.commers and employees of SF corporations like the Gap and Levi-Strauss. This very real crashing of cultures fits seamlessly with Conrad Atkinson’s exhibition, SURPLUS: Cocktail Party, which explores the collision of the First World with the Third in the fashion industry and beyond.
Atkinson has been exploring issues of class and culture for over thirty years. He has been hugely influential to a great many artists who address social and political issues in their work such as
Barbara Kruger, Alfredo Jaar and Jenny Holzer as well as the collaborative groups Group Material and Gran Fury. Group Material, with Tim Rollins (of KOS fame) as a founder and member, even took its name from the title of Atkinson’s first American exhibition – "Material".
For this exhibition, Atkinson used the surrounding environs of Intersection as inspiration, allowing the economic disparities in place to play out in the gallery space. One wall contains thrift store unchic, rumpled clothes that were perhaps once used for special occasions are now carefully arranged on old doors and metal gates leaning against the gallery walls. Embroidered onto these second hand haute couture dresses and suits are phrases such as, "100 per cent virgin something – made somewhere- by someone else – imported – alien product – available in other colors – selected styles- wash separately" and "Aesthetics can be a pretty ugly business". Images of mosquitoes, tastefully embroidered onto the clothing in contrasting colors, hover over the verbiage.
A New York Times article, documenting a few cases where a mosquito from West Africa (read Third World) infected some people in NY (read First World) with a deadly disease, can be found enlarged on one wall of the gallery space. Perhaps Atkinson is referring to the First World feeding upon the Third for cheap labor to make tomorrow's cast-off goods. The same objects which in turn may clothe recent immigrants migrating from some of the same countries where these clothes were originally made. Whatever Atkinson's intends, it certainly includes some form of pest sucking the blood (or insert the word of your choice) from an unwilling host. Whether that is the First World from the Third, vice versa or both is up to you to decide.
Particularly of note is one of the most visually successful and poignant works in the exhibition - a single pair of trousers on a gilded hangar with golden embroidery. The text, "These things are made this way for a purpose you know" says all it needs, to great effect. Also of interest in this highly charged and thought provoking exhibition is the print series entitled REARVIEW MIRROR which focuses on cultural clashes of a different sort through using the juxtaposition of natural settings with industrialized ones and black and white with color. For instance, in one work, entitled, REARVIEW MIRROR (Car Mirror Crocus), an image of a car in black and white contains a colored landscape in the rearview mirror. Here, Atkinson holds up a mirror to society, forcing us to look behind us at both the fruits of our labors and the wreckage that these labors produce along the way.
Writing about artists of his generation (those that were producing art in the 70's) Atkinson says÷"We didn’t – I think – argue that art/culture was politics by any other means but we thought that it may be that politics and economics contextualize art, but art is the resistance." And that is what this exhibition is ultimately about, art resisting the exports of the economic and political power structure of the First World and pointing out what is behind things that are readily available to wear, see and believe.
by Amy Berk
SURPLUS: Cocktail Party by: Conrad Atkinson closed on May 20 at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.
Amy Berk is an artist and freelance writer based in San Francisco.