Annie Bissett: LOADED at Cullom Gallery

Annie Bissett’s latest show at Cullom Gallery is an often humorous meditation on the dead serious subject of money and its place in our lives—from the material to the symbolic to the linguistic. Economics (simply put, the flow of money) is more hotly and universally debated than human rights. Despite this, it is often overlooked how thoroughly this paper-thin invention has infiltrated our lives, as if it were some primeval universal force. Bissett pokes at this notion in numerous and clever ways without becoming too precious. This alone is an admirable balancing act, and it says nothing of her immense skill as an artist.

Moku Hanga is at its best when precise lines are fused with rich, complex layers of color that are uniform at a glance but unique when one examines each print individually. Bissett’s color choices and the skill of their application are masterful and the precision of her images leaves nothing to be desired. The content will largely be approached as a matter of taste.

Certainly, images of tidal waves and Japanese gardens are more arresting to the eye than Bissett’s Mixed Feelings series, which juxtaposes a bold, serifed font with handwritten scrawl. Respectively, they contrast an idiom of wealth with an idiom of privation. For example, Mixed Feelings 1 places “Filthy Rich” by “Dirt Poor” over a rich brown field…or a soiled welcome mat. “Idle rich” contrasts with “lazy poor” on a burgundy field with a rustic floral motif in Mixed Feelings 2: Lazy, and Bissett gets very direct in opposing “Love” and “Money” in Mixed Feelings 9: For What.

Their acerbic wit aside, these pieces may at a glance appear a tad too homespun—an updated “Bless This Mess” for the upwardly mobile—but in these pieces, Bissett has skillfully merged a triad of aesthetics. The abstracted fields of color form a dreamy backdrop for the machine precision of the carved letters; the authoritarian lettering of the affirmative, aspirational text is crossed with the humble, human hand of realism and humor. The abstract, the precise, and the human are merged. That statement alone could describe the messy world of money, but here the result is a neatly ordered work of art. Furthermore, the “handwritten” portions genuinely feel like a defacement at first, whichmade me think of the devaluation of art by such defacements…and of course the role of money in the arts. But THAT is another article entirely.

Bissett’s visual allegories will satisfy those who love more graphic works. Great Wave makes a deft allusion to Hokusai’s famous print without becoming too literal. Beneath mountain silhouettes, in a placid lake on which a lone man paddles, the flourishes of American currency become a roiling, sinister current closing in upon the boatman. In Smoke, the flourishes emit in a cloud from a burning, obliterated car.

But Bissett’s starkest image is Pyramid, which takes the pyramid of the great seal and places a laborer at its peak, gazing upward at the great eye afloat in the stars above (gazing out at the viewer). In an age when the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening drastically and the whole system of wealth seems to be rigged to favor a perpetual plutocracy, I think I am not the only one who will see a metaphor for the elusive pursuit of wealth (and supremacy) in America. The American dream, the idea of certain success through assiduous labor is considered dead by (I would venture) a majority of Americans today. There is at least no question that those with money (this quite abstract thing) are able to keep and grow their wealth at the expense of those feeding the rigged system by the sweat of their brows. Bissett has appropriated the symbols of wealth to create a poignant and memorable image that is timely and timeless. But she has also made it distinctly apolitical, humane, even melancholic. The forlorn laborer at the top may yet be the richest man in the world. After all, if the eye above is indeed that most unattainable eye of god and that is one’s pursuit, then all the labor, all the wealth in the world will yet leave one wanting. The question then is what is the motive of one’s pursuit. To borrow from another of Bissett’s works: For What?

LOADED is on display at Cullom Gallery through October 27