The February Show at Ogilvy & Mather

The advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather seems an unlikely venue for challenging exhibitions of recent contemporary art. However, this sprawling space offers many surprises for the unexpecting visitor. The exhibition currently on view, The February Show is curated by Jun Lee and Heather Hart to coincide with Black History Month, and, it succeeds at celebrating the occasion while also acknowledging its limitations. All of the artists in the show are African American, yet this point is not underlined in the selection of works. Rather, the viewer is invited to consider broader issues of representation and power through a subversion of pop iconography, commercial language and craft. The work of familiar names is showcased alongside that of emerging artists, contributing to a viewing experience that is both relevant and illuminating.

Perhaps most suited to the context of Ogilvy and Mather is Hank Willis Thomas’s I Am A Man, a series of text-based paintings reconfiguring the motto of a 1960’s civil rights rally poster by Ernest Withers. Like most of Thomas’s work, this series interrupts the viewer’s complacent response to commercial advertising, employing the same design applications used by the industry to convey political and social messages. Taking a similar approach, artist Derek Adams’s sculptural reliefs evoke methods of visual merchandising, incorporating commonplace architectural elements like faux brick facades with fashionwear and found objects. In He, Him, They, Them, Adams combines 28 ready-made collared shirts with matching ties (folded and pressed as they might arrive from the manufacturer) in a rectangular grid, humorously offset by a silver-painted plunger rising from behind the relief at the top left corner. The labels on the shirts, which read “Imperial,” transcend the brand name to imply the dependence of an “empire” on the foundational support of its workforce.Presented in the second floor gallery are Jeffrey Sims’s still-life paintings, which offer a thoughtful quietude among the more declarative moments in the show. The traditional technique employed in executing these paintings is starkly contrasted with an unexpected cast of subjects, including barbecued pigs’ feet, fried chicken wings, hot sauce, and hair dressing pomade, among others. All of the images imply an evolving maturity based on varying physical viewpoints and subject matter. Nu-Nile stands out for its bold composition, depicting from above an open can of Nu-Nile pomade, its bright yellow branded lid partially cropped by the circular frame of the canvas. The painterliness evoked by Sims’s faithful rendering of the wax pomade is enunciated by the flatness of the painted surface and straight-above perspective of the still-life image.

Simone Leigh’s sculpture, White Teeth (for Ota Benga) inspires a directly visceral response. Enclosed within a large glass vitrine is a tightly grouped mass of porcelain teardrop-like forms that jut out sharply from a curved support. Variously glazed in multiple shades of white, brown and black, these forms are unidentifiable yet vaguely reminiscent of teeth or other organic specimens. Collectively, these mysterious bulbs attract and repel the gaze. In the same gallery is Jessica Ann Peavy’s Jive Turkey: Conundrum, which documents black female characters retelling encounters and conversations with strangers. In this video, the female protagonist repeats the following: “he said and she said and then he said and then she said…”  The confrontational nature of the character (her face fills the frame almost completely) and Funk soundtrack charge the piece with aggression , while the absurdist repetition of speech is disarmingly humorous.

Loul Samater’s installation, See My Shine activates the 9th floor gallery with expressive materiality. Clear, restaurant-style saran wrap is gathered at a ceiling corner and drapes down into the exhibition space with painted ping-pong balls sprinkled throughout each layer. In this piece, the artist embraces spatial limitations and responds directly to the unconventional exhibition space, which usually accommodates a ping-pong table for Ogilvy employees.

Since this location is off the beaten path, many will have to make it a destination. The effectiveness of The February Show, however, is elevated by the contextual implications of the host institution, Ogilvy and Mather. In an alternative space in which the main operation is advertising, the work of these artists reaches a wider audience and perhaps the creative minds of those who are responsible for even broader forms of communication.

Other artists in this show include Ernest A. Bryant III, Julia Brown, Mike Cloud, Yashua Klos, Kambui Olujimi, William Ransom, Xaviera Simmons, Shinique Smith, Devin Troy Strother, Jina Valentine, Paula Wilson and Saya Woolfalk. The exhibition will be on display in the lobby concourse and on the gallery walls of The Chocolate Factory (636 11th Avenue, New York City) through June 2011. Appointments to view the exhibit can be made by request (Tuesday – Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.).

Images courtesy of the artists and Ogilvy & Mather, New York.

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