[Editor's note: The following is a review excerpted from the Fall 2015 issue of the iconic art magazine ARTFORUM.]
Sharks: Exceed Expectations, an immersive, large-scale mixed media group show currently on view at the SAP Center in visual arts mecca San Jose, California, interrogates the intersection of typography, corporate messaging, and the new extra-textual modes of communication favored by youths on social networks. Sharks: Exceed Expectations has the all-encompassing scope of Banksy's recent Dismaland installation in Weston-Super-Mare in the UK, but with a much more ambiguous, subtle, and strange point-of-view.
The show imposes itself with its scale from the moment you approach the SAP Center, which has been apparently completely revamped to resemble an enormous indoor sporting arena. The simulacrum is impressive: a large parking lot, huge banners of "athletes" on the outside, shuttered concession stands along a concourse, and docents in cobalt sports coats directing you deep within the "arena" through a maze of corridors leading finally to a larger room resembling a locker room. The show's title appears: a cartoon glyph of a shark biting a hockey stick followed by the lurid orange on white title in large block letters on a field of marine blue.
Inside the "locker room", there are stalls for the "athletes," with odd fragments of text and pictures surrounding the upper walls. This critic was particularly moved by "DetailS", the ambiguous phrase rendered (intentionally?) in the incompetent typographic style of the early days of desktop publishing, the letters rising, perhaps fleeing, from the scene yet leaving behind an indelible trail. A supremely ironic work, "DetailS" juxtaposition of message and medium stuck in the mind of this critic long after leaving the venue.
Perhaps in contrast with the outmoded outsider art of the locker room text pieces, a series of photographs depicting (almost exclusively white) adult men surrounded with emojis and internet meme glyphs was equally thought-provoking. It struck me as a commentary on cultural immaturity with perhaps a nod to more contemporary notions of gender fluidity and the meaning of masculinity in the post-literate world of networked teenagers.
The "Martin Jones" triptych depicts a young man (wearing a smock with the show's shark logo) mimicking the poses of emojis overlaid at the bottom of the photo. The conflict between the young man's blithely happy face and the initial emoji's hollow-eyed death mask sets the scene. Is the artist making a comment on the collective denial of our impending oblivion? The next photo continues this line of inquiry, with the young man hiding his eyes as a monkey emoji does the same below. Is this a reflection of the way we ignore our animal nature, or perhaps a comment on human evolution? The final photo brings the ultimate message home, as the young man and emoji wink and stick out their tongues at the viewer: the joke is on you.
Dehumanization is the theme of "Jumbo", another photo collage with yet another young man wearing the shark smock, this time "holding" a large emoji of a smiling yellow face with blue hearts for eyes and obscuring the man's face. More intentionally amateurish, off-angle text flanks the bottom, followed by two additional smiling emojis, this time with red hearts for eyes. What does it mean to love an entity you can't know? What does the man look like? What does the mysterious "Jumbo" text indicate? Is this another joke, like "Martin Jones"?
I'll end this review with the most haunting of the photo/meme mashups, the nightmarish "Patrick Marleau". Yet another white man wearing the blue shark smock has been rendered into an anime monstrosity: gigantic empty eyes, terrifying eyebrows, rosy cheeks, and a slack mouth from which pours a rainbow surrounded by sparkles. I confess I was so disturbed by this piece that I fled the exhibit entirely. The "arena" which at first appeared to be a place of sleek, high-cost, pointless entertainment revealed itself instead to be a place of madness, a trap, a labyrinth with a frightening monster at its center, peering at you with impossibly large eyes and ejecting technicolor bile.