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Wasteland of the Real

Dominick Manco and Russell Biles’ “Cynical Realism” show at IPFW

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


When does reality need to be augmented to tell the truth? Why is the rejection of idealistic thought seen as negative? And when does the use of hyperbole limit a message, and when does it carry it further? These are only a few of the questions asked and answered by "Cynical Realism," a two-person exhibition at IPFW's School of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA), highlighting the work of local artist Dominick Manco, with his photo-pop manipulations, and Russell Biles, a satirical, sculptural, ceramicist from South Carolina, who leaves the viewer in an edgy laughter, wondering if they are indeed laughing at themselves.

The beauty of "Cynical Realism" is the synthesis of these two artist's work, and their ability to populate the same conversation with an incredibly diverse array of subjects. This rather full exhibition hits the viewers eyes at every angle of the small gallery space, and the artists' works parley the viewers attention smoothly. From connections between fast food and obesity, to money and our modern sense of emptiness, Manco and Biles stops the critical viewer and repeatedly pummels them with such caustic levels of cynicism that it produces a "laugh-as-not-to-cry" cathartic release. Glance in one direction and the viewer finds two lovers, embracing despite the proportionately relative giant thorns which cover each of them, in Biles' "Price To Pay (Best I Ever Had)," and with a slight turn of the head the viewer is immersed in the cotton candy pink background of Manco's "No Pressure, No Diamond," a portrait of his nude "Pollyanna" character laying across the floor gazing into an oversized jewel on her finger.

While these two artists certainly exude both healthy doses of cynicism, and excruciating realism, their practices are quite different in a number of ways. The most obvious difference is the nearly disparate choices of media between the artists. Manco's choice of photo manipulated digital photographs of human figures and doll like masks evokes the exhibition's title more literally, working within a lineage of the great Chinese Cynical Realist's made popular in the 1990's. However, the inclusion of an actual human form brings with it more distinct anxieties than the predominance of painting within the original Cynical Realist push. Pollyanna's adventures in this exhibition have extended her range further into the realm of economics, consumer therapy, and in "The Only Handicap is a Negative Attitude", the world of disability and ableism. Because of Manco's nuanced, cheeky politicization of his images, Pollyanna is becoming a proxy for radical performance art about the role of various human classes. With this, Manco's work takes a surprisingly comprehensive view of the plurality in modern feminist thought and action. Whether she likes it, or not, Manco's Pollyanna is becoming the voice of the weak and down-trodden as much as she is showing off the naive ideologies of youth and the American way.

Russell Biles' chosen medium of ceramics, specifically porcelain, and his use of the figure in a much more comical, allegorical, and plastic way, expresses his use of the forms to carry a narrative more so than being the embodiments of ideas themselves. On one side, Biles uses many common symbols with a dark twist, like Ronald McDonald, choking on his own by-products, poking fun at dominant trends in society through their negative consequences. While this work is Biles' most accessible, it pales in comparison the beauty and articulation of some of the other pieces he has included in "Cynical Realism". Pieces like "Nailed (Babies Making Babies)", and "Injuns (Western Conquest)" are equally as twisted, but include more intricate formal aspects, and stronger, evocative conceptual components. "Nobody (Sarah, Nobody, Michelle)" is another stronger piece, in which Biles' work effortlessly make numerous intelligent, biting comments, reflecting social and political realities that we would much rather gloss over than confront, and understand their accompanying realities which we live in. In "Nobody", Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama flank the nondescript nobody woman in the middle, while eating KFC chicken and talking on their cell phones, leaving only the empty container and palpable indignance behind.

Bile's strongest piece, and the likely the strongest piece in the exhibition, is "Bringing In The Sheep", an easily looked over ceramic installation critiquing religion and the malleability of the masses, specifically through religious means. Biles' ingeniously uses Robert Mitchum's character, Reverend Harry Powell, from the cinematic masterpiece "Night of the Hunter", as the lead in the succinct narrative. The incredibly strong likeness of the Reverend is shown pulling a rabbit out of his bible at his pulpit, in front of two grown anthropomorphic sheep, who are so enthralled with him that they are presenting him with their money and their child. Apparently due to this outpouring support, the reverent has a look of surprise, as though he is thinking, "this is so easy!"

Between Dominick Manco and Russell Biles' work, "Cynical Realism" is an incredibly dense exhibition which not only highlights the work of these most deserving artists and affirms that the curation of an exhibition transcends the space it is viewed in, but also carries a number of incredibly worthy messages. The social critiques made by these artists are confirmations that art is and has always been the "canary in the coal mine" as far a the ebb and flow of human justice, compassion, and rationality are presented in our every day. Without challenging works like these, which jar us out of our prescribed patterns, we would taken by the first pitfall.

Cynical Realism: Dominick Manco and Russell Biles
IPFW Visual and Performing Arts Building
January 16-February 12, 2012

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