The Washington Post
Dan Tague’s ‘Kids Are Alright’: Art mixes money, oil and protest
By Mark Jenkins, Thursday, June 23
Like a lot of his fellow New Orleans residents, Dan Tague has unresolved issues. He watched his neighborhood — the notoriously neglected Lower Ninth Ward — become inundated when the levees failed after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005. Later, he returned home only to see the nearby Gulf of Mexico fouled by tides of oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. But if the work in his “The Kids Are Alright” is agitprop, it’s as playful as it is angry. Tague has a sense of humor as well as a great eye.
The Civilian Art Projects’ show takes its name from one of four pieces that performs a clever bar trick: Tague folds a dollar bill as many as 100 times, until it spells out an unexpected phrase, including “The Kids Are Alright” and “Lest We Forget.” He photographs the origami currency on a black background and prints the photos in a large format (large enough that the Treasury Department can’t accuse him of counterfeiting). He also folded one bill to read “Save the Coast” and silkscreened it in a less realistic, more Warholian style.
Tague’s themes are protest, American history and, of course, money. (In “Personal Finance,” a three-dimensional piece, money grows on a tree.) Tweaking existing objects in the manner of Marcel Duchamp’s iconic treatment of a “Mona Lisa” postcard, the artist erased all but the hair, moustaches and beards from a poster of U.S. presidents to yield “First Groomings (Appearance Is Everything).”
For “50 Famous Americans,” he lifted the word “American” from the posters of 50 Hollywood movies, leaving each one in the typeface and location it had on the original.
Skeletons are prominent in Tague’s work: His version of the American revolution’s “Don’t Tread on Me” snake has been stripped of skin and flesh, and a skull bursts through that venerable Uncle Sam military-recruitment poster. One timely image transforms Mobil’s old Pegasus logo into a winged equine fossil, scrambles the company’s pre-merger name into “Limbo” and surrounds the entire image with a ring of oil from Deepwater Horizon. (Tague had a friend on the rig.)
While the artist generally focuses on mass-produced objects, he sometimes uses material — like that circle of oil — that’s specific and even talismanic. Two linked pieces, “War on Education” and “Care Forgot,” use a chalkboard and a student’s desk salvaged from a New Orleans school after the flood. (For a personal context, the show includes a 15-minute video that features Tague, but is not credited to him, and documents his and his friends’ efforts to rescue neighbors by boat.)
While outrage fuels much of this work, Tague also harnesses the power of excellent commercial design. He repurposes symbols, mercantile or otherwise, that are well understood. (Just about everyone recognizes American currency and knows that it’s not an improvement for a living creature to become a skeleton.)
Even when subverting a Fortune 500 logo, or turning the universal recycle logo into a call for revolt, the artist emulates the clean lines and eloquent simplicity of his adversaries. Like his Pop Art precursors, Tague recognizes that corporate graphic design can be many things, from banal to ominous. And also beautiful.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Dan Tague: The Kids Are Alright
on view through July 23 at Civilian Art Projects, 1019 Seventh St. NW. 202-607-3804. www.civilianartprojects.com .