Oregonian, March 21, 2002
A to Z
Little did we know at the time, but when Andy Warhol first exhibited 32 paintings of Campbell's Soup cans 40 years ago, the finely etched distinction between high and low culture was blurred forever.
Indeed, some of the late Pop artist's canny instinct for pilfering familiar images from commercial culture changed the way subsequent artists would make and sell work.
To understand how lasting an impact he has had, go to Heidi Cody's new exhibition, "No Purchase Necessary" at the Philip Feldman gallery at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. In a beautifully executed series of installations and fabrications, the 32-year old artist shows that, even a generation or so later, the sometimes callow but ultimately penetrating spirit of Warhol still burns brightly today.
That's not to say that Cody's product-inspired artworks are mere restatements of Warholian principles. Rather, consider them the genetically refined offspring of the Pop master's Campbell Soup can paintings and Brillo box images.
While Cody is not a household name, you may have heard about her. Two years ago, Cody, who was raised in Portland and studied at The Schol of the Art Institute of Chicago, showed part of her current exhibition at Brooklyn's highly respected Roebling Hall. Writeups in magazines such as Art in America and Advertising Age followed. So did interviews on ABC News and Russian television.
And the press has been generous for good reason. Take a look at the much-written-about "American Alphabet," a series of 26 light boxes lined up in a row, each one boldly radiating a computer made printout of a letter of the alphabet. Varying in typeface and coloring, each light box looks like a steroid-size insignia come to life, its halogenic stillness gathering the import of eternal light.
But look closer. You may recognize the letters. The "A" is from the detergent All; the "C" from Campbell's Soup. And so on.
But more than a spirited Pop sendup, the installation is a sardonic reminder of how deeply immersed we are in commercial culture and how banal commercial designs are now cultural symbols. Even when presented with the slightest visual hints, viewers can still identify what they're seeing.
But the guessing game gets a little harder in "Fast Pitch," a similarly conceived series of reverse-painted Plexiglas signs. This time, Cody has taken abstract elements, not letters, from well-known commercial products and assembled them in a grid.
Vividly oversized as well, the chevron-like curves and lines are distinguishable after a while: the gold and white lines of McDonald's, the white circle on a blue patch of Domino's, etc.
Taken out of context and transformed into "art," the graphic fragments look amazingly like Ellsworth Kelly, whose color-infused curved silhouettes are among the most lyrical moments in recent art history.
But the jutting, ecstatic shapes find their truer cousins in the expressionistic, anti-heroic cartoon paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, regarded by many as Pop's first visionary before Andy Warhol came along and wrote the Pop rule book.
To gather the work's weightier implications, though, viewers will have to go back into the retail world. Think of the comely presentations of Banana Republic and Tiffany's, where clothes and jewelry are folded and boxed with a streamlined precision that would shame the most finicky museum preparator.
Indeed, if commerce is now our main inspiration, then perhaps the most frequented museums are the stores we shop in.
It should come as no suprise that Cody works as a graphic designer in New York, or that she often spends hours in supermarket aisles taking copious notes for her artwork – the pink colors of Dunkin' Donuts and the latticed "P" of Pez Candy are professional bread and butter as well as food for thought.
But to show that she can do more than fabricate expensive light boxes out of pre-existing imagery, the artist has also made a series of hilarious prints, on view in the back of the gallery, based on John James Audubon's nature images.
Reimaging those famous Audubon naturescapes, Cody has replaced proud looking condors, bluejays and the like with simulacrums of commercial bottle designs – mostly detergents and cleaners.
So instead of pecking and poking birds resting on a tree, Cody has inserted, in "Blue Jays," for example, aqua-blue pump bottles – complete with bird's legs – idling away among nature's bounty.
More imaginative than ''Alphabet" and "Fast Pitch" but less appealing in the purely graphic sense, Cody's slightly audacious series is ultimately meant to be a history of commercial bottle dsign – assuming the artist continues to find an endless supply of bottled products to transform into sublime birds of paradise.
And that's a promising, open-ended way for Cody to close out her show
'No Purchase Necessary" may largely update a now cemented Pop cultural message within a post-millenium context. But even as it shows that everything old is new again, it does so with a savviness and freshness that seems original.