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July 13 - August 10, 2002 at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica

by Diane Calder

Maquette for site specific sculpture to be con-
structed at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, July, 2002.

Meg Cranston builds mountains. A craggy mock-up, less than a foot high, fabricated from chicken wire, newspapers and duct tape in the artist’s trademark “handmade” style, rests in a corner of her studio. Like an athlete focused on reaching her goal by training in increasingly challenging increments, Cranston has already moved on to a model more than twice the size of the original. Her objective is to build a mountain as commanding as the twenty-seven foot high ceiling of the gallery will allow; to do this within the parameters of a budget of $1000; and to complete it during one week’s work on site before the opening. Then there is the ironic complication that the artist has acrophobia, an abnormally intense fear of being in high places.

An earlier monumental work by Cranston, Mountain of Eggshells Crown of Meringue (from 1988) was commissioned by the Santa Monica Museum of Art shortly after it opened in Frank Gehry’s refurbished Edgemar Dairy complex. While obviously referencing the site’s former function as an egg processing plant, the installation was also widely read as a comment on the absurd conceit of monumentality and the fragility of power. It reflected interests that grew out of Cranston’s undergraduate studies in anthropology, especially issues noting the percentage of a community’s resources needed for tasks such as monument building. By folding these concerns into a nearly 30-foot tall tower of eggshells that represented one day’s egg production at a commercial farm, Cranston encouraged viewers to contemplate the effort, grandeur and vulnerability embodied in art making and museum practices.

A more complex handling of some of these same issues can be seen in the second main component of Cranston’s current show. This work, Majical Death, bears the same title as a documentary film by Napoleon Chagnon and Timothy Asch, which vividly portrays beliefs in life spirits and rejuvenation through ritual death found in the shamanic ceremonies of the Yanomamo Indian culture.

Majical Death is a life sized piñata, fabricated in the artist’s image. To appreciate the semiotics of this work it is valuable to note that the earliest known predecessors to the piñata were seed-filled animal-shaped objects that were cracked open with colored sticks in springtime planting ceremonies in China. Not long after being introduced into Italy by Marco Polo, the piñata was adapted by the Europeans to conform to their own religious beliefs, and eventually brought to the new world where it was successfully used to attract converts. The most traditional Catholic style had seven points, representing the seven deadly sins: greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, wrath and lust. Blindfolds worn by players signified the blind faith believed necessary to break through these evil temptations to reach the rewards that paradise had to offer.

Modern versions of the piñata have lost most of their earlier associations with religious ceremony. They are even fashioned in numerous forms, including those of cartoon characters, politicians and celebrities. Cranston’s piñata was produced by Brian Butler’s 1301PE (“PE” for Print Editions) and manufactured in Guadalajara, Mexico in a process that more closely dialogues with Jeff Koon’s productions than Andy Warhol’s emblematic negation of artistic originality. Her piñata is a copy of herself, cast from life. In it Cranston’s hands and face retain a relatively smooth finish. The more textured surfaces representing her jeans, boots, sweater and hair are fabricated with specially selected materials that mimic the artist’s “uniform” more successfully than traditional crepe and tissue papers would.

The dark hairstyle of Majical Death duplicates the iconic wig with bangs that Cranston used in her performance Women Who Would Play Me If I Paid Them. When examined in comparison with other recent works by Cranston, including Dental Physiognomy, a series in which the artist superimposed images of her own teeth onto photographs of famous people, it becomes more than an interesting foil to the signature platinum hairpiece worn by Warhol and his stand-ins. The very real human presence of Cranston in Majical Death also provides an illuminating contrast to an earlier (morphed) photo-based work, The Average American. The work is finally a statement about the notion of originality as a myth of modern culture.