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Raising some red flags at the Midtown Arts Center

Justifiable Desecration: A Celebration of Our Independence is the title of the inaugural exhibition in the newly dedicated Mid-AIR Gallery at the Midtown Arts Center. The problems with the exhibition are symptomatic of the larger deficiencies of the center, which simply must be addressed if it wants to succeed as a viable force on the local art scene.

Justifiable Desecration was conceived by curator Mallarie Zimmer. It consists of works by 11 artists (most of whom are artists-in-residence at the center) that deal, in some way, with the American flag. Some of the pieces are fashioned from actual flags; some only make oblique reference to the flag. Among the wittier pieces are three by Andy Magee (executive director of the Midtown Arts Center) that reconstruct the flag's graphic design out of Monopoly money and plastic utensils.

The point of the show, according to the curator's statement, is to establish that art made with flags is the "ultimate display of patriotism, pride in the U.S., the Constitution, and democratic government." In short, it is meant as a celebration of, and an exercise in, freedom of expression.

But the works in the show don't really rise to the spirited charge of the curator's description. Most of the works are simply not very good, haphazardly constructed or hackneyed in theme. All told, the exhibition amounts to a group of jovial pieces that gently incorporate or send up the Stars and Stripes. As a group, they neither excite controversy nor instill pride, and so they fall short of making any statement about artistic freedom of expression, the supposed point of the show.

There should have been ample evidence to suggest that a "flag" show like this would be doomed from the start. The last time the American flag and its use (or abuse) in art sparked any interest was back in 1996, when the exhibition Old Glory: The American Flag in Contemporary Art incited protests, mainly from veterans groups like the American Legion, when it opened at the Phoenix Art Museum. That show included works that were designed to provoke intense reactions: a work by Kate Millett featuring an American flag stuffed into a toilet; an installation by Dread Scott in which viewers had to step on the flag to write their statements in a comment book; and the image of a Klansman clutching a baby, superimposed over Old Glory.

Most of the works in the Phoenix exhibition were silly, cheap shots, and the public reaction to them was banal and predictable. After the show closed and the protests subsided, the fallout of opinions remained divided into two neat camps: one maintaining the need to safeguard the flag against any form of desecration, the other asserting that First Amendment rights protect all forms of expression, even those that involve the desecration of national symbols. No surprises there.

But the discussion hasn't ended. This summer, when the House of Representatives voted for an amendment to protect the flag from desecration, all the old, familiar arguments were revived, but the basic terms of the debate were never challenged. Interestingly, the issue doesn't appear to be generating much interest from visual artists, who must by now sense the dead end that the flag argument inevitably represents.

In the context of all of this intense (albeit boring) debate in Congress and in the press, Justifiable Desecration has a day-late-dollar-short feel to it. Of course, it could be argued that Justifiable Desecration is just a show about flags, a celebration of the Red, White and Blue, and had no intention of ever entering into the fray of debate. But if that's the case, its title should have indicated as much. Instead, we're left with an exhibition that seems to promise the one thing it fails to deliver: a serious statement about anything.

The problems with the exhibition, and the Midtown Arts Center as a whole, don't end there. There is a curious sense of insularity to the place, as if the public were an afterthought to its mission. Perhaps it's no accident that the Midtown Arts Center calls itself "an arts incubator" — penetrating the place to see the exhibitions can prove difficult. The center is often locked down during its advertised business hours (1-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday). And although no one wants to knock the efforts of an understaffed, underfunded, not-for-profit art agency, it's hard to rally behind a place that doesn't appear to want to succeed.

Right now the Midtown Arts Center is offering three more exhibitions for those persistent enough to get through the front doors. The Contemporary Gallery offers A Madwoman, a solo exhibition by Nanci J. Zimmer that unfortunately suffers from some of the same anemia that marks Justifiable Desecration. Her works are small-scale photocopied collages that incorporate figures and patterns into strictly controlled compositions. Thematically, most of the works are either too cryptic or too didactic to really enjoy — some take on topical issues (like tobacco-related deaths), albeit in a curiously nonspecific way; some clearly come from the artist's private experience and are beyond accessibility.

Zimmer's exhibition oddly appears to culminate in "Paint Is Not Pornography," the largest work and the only painting in the show. The work is distressing, but probably not for the reasons the artist intended. It combines a painted depiction of nudes in muddy, expressionist strokes, surrounded by cut-out photos of women from porn mags (the naughty bits have been covered over). Zimmer helps the viewer get the point by adding text, which reads, "this is real it is a problem" (referring to the photos), and "this is only tempra (sic) paint and is not a problem" (referring to the painted figures). But there is indeed a problem here, and it lies in the dubious, sweeping and ill-informed judgment the work hands down concerning the media of photography and paint.

Things don't get much better in the Vault Gallery, where Roy Cooper's paintings are on display, but here the fault lies primarily with the gallery itself, which consists of a stairway and hall space. In an apparent attempt to subvert the sterility of more standard exhibition spaces, the curator has decided to paint the walls black. The result is a mess that looks like the aftermath of a frat party. Cooper's rainbow pastel abstractions suffer for it, though their inexpensive frames don't help the works much, either.

Viewers will be rewarded, however, for passing through this space, because it leads to the Renaissance Gallery, where photographs by Jeff Johnston and Peter Zwally are on display. The exhibition is nothing short of great, a smart pairing of two very different kinds of work that complement each other brilliantly.

Johnston's photos are images made over the past year during road trips to Mississippi. He's captured something about the place that words can't really describe — in his hands, Mississippi appears at once familiar and yet totally foreign. Sensitive, large-format portraits of memorable figures (like a blind woodcarver from Yazoo City) mingle with fascinating observations of architecture and surreal-looking signage. Two closeups of medicine cabinets are heartbreaking metaphors for the process of aging.

Zwally, too, takes images of the familiar and makes them very strange. Zwally uses primarily a plastic Arrow camera, and he exploits its natural tendency to distort what it views. Flowers, trees and hillsides commingle in wild, colorful, almost abstract swirls. Some of the photos capture the multiple-exposure effect of the black-and-white photos of the great Ralph Eugene Meatyard; others look like pictures taken in panic or haste. The effects are softened by the rounded framing of the image, which also lends the entire collection a slightly nostalgic feel.

The photographs are beautifully framed and mounted, and the even lighting in the gallery shows them off to their best advantage. Though it consists mainly of hallways, the Renaissance Gallery is still one of the better exhibition spaces at the Midtown Arts Center, and the Johnston-Zwally exhibition is certainly the best thing on view now. Organizers at the center should take a cue from this show and produce more exhibitions with this clarity of focus and this quality of presentation — and then let the public in to see them.

The exhibitions at the Midtown Arts Center run through Aug. 11.

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More by Ivy Schroeder

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