Gay City News: "Manifest Destiny: Jonah Freeman, Michael Phelan examine the ersatz American frontier"


A version of this review appeared in Gay City News:

Big dreams and a vast wilderness.

But where has America gone?  Jonah Freeman and Michael Phelan, in a collaborative show at John Connelly Presents, explore the new American frontier of mall design.

When the wilderness is gone, the two artists suggest, there remains only the ersatz wilderness that we create from our own fantasies.  The densely packed installation—with its fake stone linoleum floor, stuffed penguins, and rotisserie chicken—encapsulates the new American gathering place (a limited edition print, produced in tandem with the show, is entitled, “The Gathering”).  In a new world where there is no natural presence, we recreate nature in our public places—whether through fountains, or bronze casts of Native Americans, or, as is the case here, stuffed penguins.  Freeman and Phelan make us acutely aware of the yearning and absurdity of our ecologic taxidermy. 

The reordering of the environment based on logical precepts—such as, it’s easier to move linoleum rolls impressed with stone shapes than actual stones—is a primary concern of the artists.  There is an arch irony to the mirrored installation (with rotisserie chicken) that is the centerpiece of the show.  The sculpture, which shares a title with Shel Silverstein’s, “The Giving Tree,” implies that we see the world only in terms of our reflections—our own needs, our own vanities.  In a video installation, a seemingly mesmerized groundhog chirps in monotone, while faced by the hypnotic and ceaseless flashing of a strobe light.  Painted panels, a mural, and a color-lit linoleum wall produce a similar sense of disorientation in the viewer.  Throughout the installation, the drive to subvert a natural state of awareness—think Las Vegas, or Disney World—encroaches on the viewer’s consciousness.  We are, iterate the artists, under the constant bombardment of our own self-delusion.

Disco, morgue, mall—Phelan and Freeman creepily combine the emotional states of these and other public spaces.  Perhaps more disturbing, the Chelsea cool of the show brings a certain seductiveness to the cooption of the natural environment.  Not too different than the restaurant around the corner.