Television is a funny medium. It brings us together through shared viewing experiences, and it isolates us in a pool of light in a darkened room.  We look to the ubiquitous box for information, forgetting that what we see is produced and edited to fit a format. What we receive is someone’s creation.

How fitting, then, for artists to create art from the created reality of television. The four summer exhibitions at the Faulconer Gallery (Grinnell College) delve into the least scripted moments of television as well as the manufactured realities received through the airwaves.  Two of the exhibitions are specifically based on TV as a medium.  The other two dig deeper into the desires that undergird American life. The 4 exhibitions were curated by Dan Strong, our curator of exhibitions and the Gallery’s associate director.

Like a bank of TV monitors, the exhibitions present a sea of familiar (and not so familiar) faces.  Viewers will challenge one another to identify this or that famous person.  Michael Van den Besselaar snags the images for his portraits from TV screens. Caught in a single frame, they lose all quality of animation and are oddly specific and anonymous at the same time. He further underscores the brutality of TV by including his Larger Than Life series—black and white images of the famous and unknown in death, or, as Dan says, their final close-up.  Backing onto these paintings is an actual bank of TV monitors showing Harry Shearer’s (yes, that Harry Shearer) The Silent Echo Chamber. We learn in these largely silent, endless minutes, that all those people we are used to seeing and hearing in animated discussion of the day’s events, first have to sit, and sit, and sit in front of the camera, waiting to be cued. How long must they wait, we wonder? What do they think about as they fidget, stare, or slump? What would we do for minutes on end, with our nothingness recorded on film for posterity?

Watching TV has a lot to do with desire. We want to know. We want to consume. We want to live vicariously. Desire in its most elemental form drives the virtuoso painting Feast by Brian Drury. Without giving too much away, Drury paints the base desires of our creature companions on this American continent, doing what they must to survive and thrive.

Mark Wagner makes desire explicit, in a sense, by literally creating his art out of money, dollar bills to be precise.  Cutting and collaging the myriad details found on the two surfaces of our most common piece of paper, he makes tour-de-force portraits and recreations of famous paintings. Familiar faces from Chuck Close to Mona Lisa, commodified by their monetary materials, underscore the connection between price and value. He pushes this connection further with titles like Employee of the Month, 2006 and Fortune’s Daughter, 2005, which depict people we are unlikely to know but who get their moment of fame (at a specific dollar value) at the hands of the artist.

The exhibition left me thinking about desire, and how it isn’t always pretty. These 4 glimpses of unlooked for longings underscore that what we want most may be more appropriate for the 10 o’clock news than for decent human conversation. As Dan Strong notes, we are witness to the “collision of hopeful ideals and unrelenting reality that is TV” and our larger American life.

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