I saw two tedious shows on Saturday- the first was Anthony Thomas Shumate's "The Pump That Jack Used" at the new Art League. Actually, it's the old Art League, as far as the gallery is concerned, but part of the new building. I entered through the bathroom of the Inversion cafe. I'll have to see if they offer a BLT.
A show like this is a lot like reading your average letter to the editor; someone sounding off on their grievances without any special understanding of the issues or any new insight, just articulating their feelings on something that's troubling them.
It's troubling me, too, but Shumate's show left me unchanged. The only surprising fact was the amount of taxes gasoline sales generate, displayed on a little chart you can take away with you. I've got it in front of me now, and I'm trying to figure it out.
First, let's assume Shumate's figures are correct, otherwise there's no point. Let's also assume he got the chart from somewhere, rather than making it himself, although there's no attribution. The chart compares "domestic profits earned by major US oil companies" with "total gas taxes" in the same years, all figures adjusted to 2004 dollars. The chart shows two things: that gas taxes are a lot bigger than oil company profits, most years, and that the two figures are independent, there's no easy-to-spot relationship between the two. What does that prove?
A miniscule line of text states: "Government and Private business have equal incentive to allow this system to continue." The unstated implication is that oil companies are making profits, and government is raking in taxes, that this is a bad "system" that is "allowed" to continue despite some harm that is left unspecified.
The harms are easy to find, read any newspaper's headlines, but Shumate leaves them as weak, unstated insinuations. It's great way to foster a sense of helplessness before injustice, but a poor way to solve problems or raise awareness.
And that's the real purpose of Shumate's work: to foster a sense of victimization, to share a cathartic tear at the evil conspiracies of power that control our destinies, and to reinforce a smug sense that we, by guessing we're victims, have done something about it.
Catharsis is as good a reason to make art as any, but Shumate sticks doggedly to a didactic, expository style when what he's looking for is emotional expression. A flow chart, a graph, a checklist, a model and CAD drawings present Shumate's fears in the style of facts in an ironic parody of the corporate culture he's criticizing.
His computer craft is perfect, no corporate consultant could have done better, but the very success of his mimicry undermines his point — the techniques of persuasion used by business and government are as available to Shumate as anyone else. It's doubly ironic that the Art League's chrome and vinyl bench is in much the same high design style as the chairs in Shumate's corporate boardrooms.
The most appealing element of the show is the children's-style book Shumate has produced, The Pump that Jack Used. My kids would like the pictures; trucks, gas stations, oil refineries, all done in a clean computer graphic style, but they wouldn't like the text. In a series of linked verses it goes from gas pump to boardroom, but the lilting scansion of the original Mother Goose rhyme is mangled. As in the rest of the show, Shumate believes that since it's got a message, it doesn't have to rhyme.