Under His Midas Touch - I Gyrate!

Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Providence, RI

15,000 pennies assiduously arranged and affixed to a blackened plywood surface are transformed into a copper mosaic that loudly proclaims its intrinsic worth. As the child of a Depression Era parent, my impulse is to rankle at the use of material imbued with capital value for the sake of aesthetics, but “Marcella Marsella, Volfovich & Vincent” or Lauren Marsella, Polina Volfovich and Jennifer Dalton Vincent work in the smallest increments and most illusory signifiers of fiscal value: pennies, ones, and credit cards. Under His Midas Touch - I Gyrate! Plays with notions of capital - monetary, social and cultural - in a way that feels modest and tongue in cheek, even in its spectacle.

Money is Expensive!

Elizabeth Maynard, PhD.

November, 2015

“Money is Expensive,” perhaps the most visually striking work of the exhibit, consists of 15,000 pennies, but the relatively modest value of $150 belies the labor involved in the creation of the mural sized work - particularly compelling when we consider both the cultural and economic place of the penny. While presently recognized as a legal tender, stores can refuse to accept pennies, and they actually cost more to produce (about 1.4 cents) than the value they signify. Curiously enough, pennies are also the first coin to feature the depiction of an American president - the 1909 penny was commissioned by Theodore Roosevelt to celebrate the 100th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

 

Portraiture of the “founding fathers” has become de rigeur for both coin and paper tender, the subject of the exhibit’s animated short and corresponding single bill illustration. One hundred twenty one bills altered with pastel illustration are hung in the white gallery space, while an animated short shows the rotating technicolor busts of Lincoln, Franklin and Washington morphing into one another. The persistent visibility of the stoic engraving of Washington underneath illustrates the patriarchal foundations to our nation’s value(s) fiscal and otherwise, referenced with tongue firmly in cheek by the intentional misspelling of “Money is Expenisve.” Looking at the individual bills, this gendered element of the bills is influenced as a pair of curvy legs clad in high heels stride past the revolving bust of Franklin - a notorious womanizer. This disembodied and sartorially sexualized representation of femininity contrasted with presidential portraiture begs the questions of whose touch is Midas? Who gyrates? Is this final aspect of the narrative reference to sexual politics and power? Femininity fractured but present? A curious question in light of the artists’ decisions to present themselves under ambiguously gendered pseudonyms.

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The portraiture of the bills also recalls the contemporary conversation around representation of women on legal tender. As the time I write this, Harriet Tubman has recently been selected to replace Andrew Jackson as the face of the twenty-dollar bill. This conversation broaches compelling questions around representation and commodification, particularly in light of Harriet Tubman’s crucial role in the Underground Railroad’s passage to escaping enslaved peoples and her celebrity in the abolitionist movement, referenced by the work adjacent to the projected animation, “Am I Not A Woman & A Sister?”

 

The glittering collages by Marcella Marsella reference the best known iconography of the abolitionist movement - the depiction of a kneeling enslaved man framed by the words, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother.” This collage has substituted the figure with a gilded woman with bright red lips and hoop earrings, carrying an infant with dark skin on her back, in the pose of Sacagawea on the gold dollar coin. Composed of cut up credit cards which feature the given name of the artist, Lauren Marsella, the work explores consumption through her inclusion of images of food, art, corporate logos, and the recurrent word “access.” Concurrently, “FREEDOM” is inscribed above the central figure, perhaps an ironic reference to the proliferation of purchasing power based on credit and the soaring debt of the American populace, a pandemic among students and young adults. While raising questions about representations of power when juxtaposed with the adulterated dollar bills, the collage also points to the illusory underpinnings of the American financial system, the gold standard a long-lost fantasy in the world of easily available credit cards.


Under His Midas Touch - I Gyrate! is a playful but sharp critique of capital, an element best captured in the performance cum installation of a Donald Trump pinata filled with $100 Chinese bills - sometimes referred to as Hell Money, burned as offerings in hopes for prosperity. The grotesque paper mache sculpture lies torn nearly to shreds in the middle of the exhibit, the festive batons hung on the wall underneath the brightly illustrated dollars, indicative of both the humor and pathos that pervades this thoughtful unwinding of the systems of value we encounter daily.