In a sense, the act of appropriation is as old as art itself: Artists imitating the styles and ideas of their peers is essentially how we conceive of the art historical dialogue. By the '60s, though, pop artists took this notion to its logical conclusion within a capitalist society, drawing their source material from the cartoon characters, screen pin-ups, and corporate logos of consumer culture. Today, icons, mascots, and celebrities have become pervasive cultural signifiers.
Illegal Art, at PNCA's Feldman Gallery, offers a selection of art that draws liberally from these sources—and has consequently encountered legal problems, based on copyright and intellectual property infringement. And it's easy to see why. Warhol's silkscreens of Campbell's soup cans, for example, seemed to immortalize the product as classically American. By contrast, Todd Haynes' Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a film that portrays the pop star's fatal descent into anorexia, using Barbie dolls in lieu of actors, would understandably send the public relations division at Mattel into conniption fits.
Haynes' film, along with much of the work included in Illegal Art, walks a fine line between playfully irreverent and scathingly critical. Packard Jennings' prototypes for a series of Pez dispensers featuring the heads of fallen rappers Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, and Eazy-E is, on the one hand, really, really funny. But they also question what sort of figures make up accepted American iconography. Heidi Cody's painting, Eskimo Pie Waves from the Bridge (Poland Springs Water), is similarly complicated. As the artist inserts the ice cream sandwich brand's Eskimo caricature into the flowing river and lush forests of the Poland Springs logo, it's an incredible sight gag. But Cody also raises serious questions of ethnic stereotyping in the brand's cartoon depiction of a parka-clad Eskimo girl.
While Illegal Art asks some challenging questions about the boundaries of intellectual property, it remains an undeniably fun and effortlessly evocative show. After all, where else can you imagine tilting Big Poppa's tiny plastic head back to enjoy the natural flavor of fallen rapper candy? JOHN MOTLEY