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Review: New work in St. Claude galleries

D. Eric Bookhardt on works by Alison Pebworth, Imen Djouini and Jonathan Taube



America has always been many things to many people. It was beautiful, bountiful land that promised wealth and freedom to people who had neither, and it was tainted by slavery, oppression and genocide directed against its native inhabitants. This raucous mix of high ideals and base motives was oddly reflected in 19th-century traveling carnivals and medicine shows, which these Beautiful Possibility banner-like paintings by Alison Pebworth evoke. Collectively they allude to a condition dubbed "Americanitis" by psychologist William James. A nervous ailment brought on by rapid change, it inspired the invention of patent medicines to treat it. Reflecting clashing circumstances and cultures, Pebworth's collagelike images mix past and present to suggest aspects of Americanitis for us to decipher as we may. One titled Remarkable Tricksters, Made in America features P.T. Barnum, Br'er Rabbit and Karl Rove, and another features a Native American totem interspersed with Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop and Wall Street bulls. In Greatest Show on Earth (pictured), an old-time circus ringmaster stands atop a power plant cooling tower snapping a whip at a looming tsunami in an apt summation of our approach to climate change. A whimsical installation, these works effectively evoke America's colorful complexity.

  At the Front, Bywater artists Jonathan Taube and Imen Djouini dealt with the related issues of borders and displacement by erecting a crude earthen barrier just inside the gallery entrance. Neatly excavated from a rectangular cavity behind the building, it blocks the approach to a wall with some large graphic depictions of North Korea, Palestine and the Arizona-Mexico border. An exploration of the romance of landscapes characterized by border conflict, Djouini and Taube's minimalist project bluntly yet eloquently reminds us that migration remains a charged and complicated issue, and that human aspiration knows no boundaries but is constrained by dreams and mirages. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT

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