Haze Gallery, 6635 N. Baltimore #211, through May 1
American Farm is a packed, post-mad cow, post-Fast Food Nation installation created by New York artist Lindsay Bowdoin Key with the assistance of the Sauvie Island farming community. It's an enormous happy meal of an exhibition, containing a bit of everything--comics, paintings, sculptures, bales of hay, and live animals.
The smell of hay greets visitors before the gallery doors even open--the floor is carpeted with the stuff; hay bales dot the walls like makeshift benches and cover the back windows. Wagon wheels lean here and there, and crude fencing has been erected to create makeshift pens. Immediately, one is struck by the grandiosity of the artist's efforts. In fact, this environmental tableau was so overwhelming that it took me a few moments to notice that there was a living cow in the back corner of the gallery--a small longhair breed, about as large as an enormous sheep dog, pissing on the floor, waiting to return to her Sauvie Island home after the opening reception.
Crude paintings on paper lined the walls--spraycan, acrylic, and stenciled Mad magazine-like scenes of pop-eyed cattle, hamburgers, weeping figures, and Thomas Jefferson. The paintings could have been stronger, much stronger, if compared to those of, say, Alexis Rockman; but they were difficult to concentrate on, with the cow nearby and hay underfoot. A herd of waxy udders hung from the ceiling above a suite of half-full milk glasses sitting on palettes below, suggesting the depersonalized, production and manufacturing emphasis of contemporary farming. As a metaphor, it wasn't enough for me, and I think that additional research would have unveiled some true horrors about agribusiness and meat processing that could have given pause even to carnivores like myself.
One sculptural element of the installation did approach this level of informed satire. Bowdoin's faux-farm contained a feeding trough brimming with hundreds of small, handmade synthetic hamburgers. The visual effect was colorful and impressive, and it effectively conjured up the contemporary practice of mixing livestock wastes and animal hormones into the feed of these vegetarian animals. It's a practice, Bowdoin Key would like to point out, that never went on at Old MacDonald's farm. CHAS BOWIE