July 1, 2000
In this marketing-oriented world where clever and flashy commercial presentation is the rule, packaging – especially the packaging of consumer goods that one can buy in the local supermarket – is near ubiquitous.
Indeed, ever since the late pop artist Andy Warhol elevated (or debased, depending on your point of view) those famous Brillo boxes, commercial consumer products have never really been seen – or used – by the public in quite the same way.
Well, move over Warhol. A Portland artist now based in New York, Heidi Cody, has upped the ante a bit with a new show in New York. "Branded," an installation that just finished its run at Roebling Hall Gallery in Brooklyn, confirms that while the Brillo box as art box once seemed revolutionary, it's now all but banal.
The show – and Cody – have been generously written up nationally. The Web magazine www.reviewny.com and Advertising Age magazine already have contributed sterling reviews. And, in a few months, Art in America will chime in with its own take on Cody's exhibit, which finished its run on June 20 and may travel elsewhere, according to the 30-year old artist who lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
That's quite an impressive glut of press for a young artist who just moved to New York two years ago and who's had only one previous solo show exhbit. But Cody, who grew up in Portland and then attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut and then The School of the Art Institute of Chicago for graduate school, has particpated in numerous group shows, including one in Seoul, South Korea, and another in Tokyo.
And since 1993, Cody has been thinking deeply about the state of consumerism and the American supermarket milieu, which she terms "a microcosm of capitalism at work."
With tongue firmly in cheek, Cody has constructed 26 light boxes – one for each letter of the alphabet – that display the initial letter of a commercial product in virtually the same design, font and color as the original packaging.
For viewers, the 26 glowing light boxes aren't simply objects of aesthetic scrutiny but pieces of a larger cultural puzzle. Can you recognize the letters? Do they look familiar from may walks down the supermarket aisle? The answer: of course.
The "A" is taken from the detergent All, the "G" is from the sports drink Gatorade, and the "Z" from the soap Zest, etc.
Recognizing all – or many, at least – of the letters of the commercial brands also might provoke another level of recognition besides "Jeopardy"-like smugness: Has the world of commercial branding so glutted the American consciousness that we can recoginize product packaging more easily than, say, the lyrics to a song or the text from great literature?
The answer to that may depend on how much you consume. But if you live to shop, the show's lasting refrain is "Don't worry, be happy." "Branding [sic]" is ultimately both a critical riff and a self-conscious send-up that basks in a don't-let-it-bother-you-too-much irony.
But Cody, who has tried unsuccessfully to get representation in Portland, though she's turning heads in New York, is far from done with her quasi-anthropological critique of the American supermarket.
"I'm still pushing my cart around looking for new ideas," she says.