Memoirs of a Garbologist

"Great Tasting Goodness!" at the Woolworth Building.

Have you ever had an advertising jingle stuck in your head? A ditty for some throwaway item that clung to your gray matter like a remora to a cruising shark? If so, then beware of the art of Gabriel Brown – this artist’s exuberant new installation at the Woolworth Building, fashioned from a massive accumulation of junk packaging, has viewers (particularly baby boomers) wracking their brains for the iconic ad slogans they grew up with: Trix are for kids! We try harder! A little dab’ll do ya! Finger lickin’ good! Once you start playing that game, it’s hard to stop.

A house in McDonald's land.

Brown has a problem, and it is us. That is, the Everest-size mountain of waste we Americans create each year that has earned us the dubious distinction of being Earth’s Most Wasteful Citizens. Brown, a self-described “garbologist,” uses a well-honed sense of satire to dissect the American way of life.

His new installation, Great Tasting Goodness!, is a panoramic commentary on the marketing industry and on unbridled consumerism. The work’s central figure, a soaring, two-headed “human” silhouette, is made from hundreds of cookie-cutter houses hand-folded from discarded product packaging. This goliath (reminiscent of the graffiti artist Keith Haring’s “radiant child”), grasps in every direction. Layers of flattened packaging litter the floor, the familiar brand labels playfully begging viewers to “Name That Jingle” – for Mr. Clean, Cheeze-It, Lipitor, Marlboro.

A spotless tub - at what price?

Brown skillfully employs a double row of houses as the line he uses to “draw” with; this line is symbolically loaded, bringing to mind a factory production line, an endless freeway of stopped vehicles, as well as a weirdly generic meta-suburb (an impression accentuated by the innocuous white cotton clouds floating overhead). He has been making these fastidiously folded dwellings since 2007, and notes that it is “surprising how many products children can recognize even with only a portion of a logo revealed.”

Gabriel Brown satirizes the American way of life.

The Tacoma artist has posted some of his interactive projects on his website. For his hilarious Adventure series, Brown dons a suit and tie to assume the persona of an affluent, non-reflective businessman – one who panhandles for gas (for his Hummer!); and rummages through public garbage cans while “talking loudly on [the] cellphone about stocks, golf and wife troubles.” In an installation called Litter Mandala, a design resembling a jewel-like Eastern mandala reveals itself to be constructed from carefully placed bits of refuse. The message is loud and clear: Materialism is the new religion, and the shopping mall is its temple.

Brown’s art invites people to look at themselves and laugh (nervously) at their ability to get suckered by the marketing Masters of the Universe. A fine satirist, he relies on neither didactic rampages nor overdone cynicism to get his point across. The work is most successful when it “has caught the public eye and sparked dialogue over issues such as consumerism, contemporary art, waste, materialism and environmental destruction,” he says.

Gabriel, blow your horn!

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