Immediately upon entering the 303 North Studio exhibit Crass Doesn’t Sell, guests are informed the currency in their wallets is not valid. Instead, they are offered the opportunity to exchange it for local money, the “Kotlac.”
And why not? How does paper acquire value? Companies selling products are all too happy to accept our “paper” and put forth quite the effort to persuade us to part with it. Are we certain of value of the green pulp in our pockets? Currency values fluctuate. The value of the gold rises and falls. In this era of consumerism, global economy, soaring national and personal debt — skyrocketing numbers disconnecting from reality — artist Brent Holmes questions the language of buying and selling down to the very value of currency itself.
He uses the bold colors, soft lighting, edgy text and sexually charged imagery and language of advertising, signaling to the viewer that something’s for sale — but do we want to buy it? Each image is titled for a national currency, corners and sides decorated with the designated monetary motif while a central, masked figure appears in a position of violence and excess.
In the piece “Dollar,” we encounter a woman, her face a melting blob, with blond hair, spread legs, ice cream cones sticking to her breasts and cream and sprinkles dribbling down to a plate of additional cones. A phrase in hot pink reads: “Everything is for sale, nothing is of value.” American consumer culture summed up in single nauseating package.
Nearby, in “Yuan,” an axe-wielding, horned dominatrix inquires, “When it comes to swallow you up, will you smile?” gesturing at the swelling Chinese economy flooding the world with cheaply manufactured products. In “Riyal,” an exposed sheik, surrounded by the oil-field glyphs of Saudi Arabian currency, explains that “It’s not you that I hate. It’s your sense of entitlement,” offering glib commentary on the West’s disproportionate consumption of fossil fuels. Stereotypical worldviews and bankrupt morals are packaged up and ready for sale. No exchanges or refunds?
To purchase works in the exhibit, viewers must first exchange their money for the “Kotlac,” a busy pink design by Holmes, complete with an illustration of “the hole,” located in the Ukraine, for which the currency is named.
“What does the word ‘dollar’ mean?” Holmes asks guests looking at the works. “It’s an abstraction of an old German word. Why are we naming our money after an Ukrainian silver mine?”
Dollar, formerly thaler, is derived from the shortened name of a Ukrainian mining town where coins were minted back in 1520. We’ve long since exchanged the use of silver coins for the ease and convenience, but perhaps at times questionable value, of paper. Named for a hole, Holmes’ currency is simultaneously poking at the idea of what is backing up the value of paper money, and the black hole of bills, mortgages, food and products that swallows our weekly paychecks. And somehow the numbers in our wallets seem to diminish in value, covering less and less. Maybe someday they will be worth zero. It’s happened before.
Commenting on dead currency, the “Dinar” — defunct currency of the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein — depicts a male in a gold sarong with a lacy shawl, raising fists in an impotent gesture of defiance, declaring, “It’s all just a series of diminishing returns.” Because of war, shifts in government and runaway inflation, pieces of paper were stripped of value.
With that thought ringing in their heads, viewers might give the greenbacks in their wallet a more dubious glance. Maybe the “Kotlac” is just as good? It is at least while you’re inside 303 North Studio.
CRASS DOESN’T SELL by Brent Holmes, 303 North Studio, 107 E. Charleston Blvd. No. 115, www.facebook.com/303NorthStudio