“Bandit” essentially operates on two levels. On one hand, it is a deconstruction of one of William Shakespeare’s (reputedly working with a literary collaborator) lesser-known works, “Timon of Athens,” a kind of Elvis story of a wealthy Athenian who squanders his fortune on corrupt hangers-on. Atlanta-based Drennen’s choice of that play is strategic. Because there is so little cultural familiarity with “Timon of Athens,” Drennen can essentially “own” the imagery and ideas around the play.
But “Timon of Athens” is just one feature of “Bandit.” On another level, and just in time for Christmas, “Bandit” is an excoriation of the massive outlays of cash that define capitalism’s signature holiday, Christmas.
Consumption, as exemplified by Christmas, is the common ground between Shakespeare’s Timon, a wealthy man who gives endlessly without much satisfaction, and Santa Claus, whose very modus operandi is the giving business. The dollar sign painted on canvases and bags of money placed on shelves beneath those paintings appear throughout “Bandit,” echoing the play’s theme. It’s as if Drennen is saying if Christmas can be reduced to a base consumer spectacle, why not Shakespeare?
As an exhibition, “Bandit” reads as a sort of stage set for what might be an avant-garde performance of “Timon of Athens” staged with a Christmas theme. There is a fake brick chimney “Chimney Hole 1” hung very high on the gallery wall, suggesting Santa might drop by at any second, and tiny artificial Christmas trees listlessly draped with measly strands of tinsel that sit on round daises that read as coins or Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in the round.
In addition, three life-sized gray Santa Clauses with the “X”’ed out eyes that convey death in cartoon terms lie on the gallery floor. Overhead, a video features shots of Santa repeating his signature refrain in the most exhausted, breathless terms imaginable, “ho, ho, ho” and “hee, hee, hee.” One of the high points of the show, that video’s hilarious combination of “cheer” and exhaustion may pretty well sum up the American approach to Christmas, a frenzy of anticipatory excitement and post-traumatic despair measured in the arrival of January credit card bills.
To this mix, Drennen adds a series of paintings that bubble up some of the themes of the show, decorated with dollar signs, more tinsel trees, peppermint candies, hyper-realist jingle bells, Santa Claus and big globs of white paint to signal snow. To some of those paintings, Drennen has added trompe l’oeil round mirrors like the kind hosting surveillance cameras in elevators. Reflected inside those mirrors we see a man, assumedly the artist, taking a photo of his own painting. In this and many other ways, Drennen plays impishly with perspective, making us both surveyors and the surveyed as we take in his paintings. Continually playing with our vantage, paintings can be read head-on in the usual way, or overhead, in a God’s-eye view suggested by the tinsel trees jutting from the wall next to Drennen’s paintings.
As if Santa and Shakespeare weren’t enough, Drennen tackles the whole modernist ball of wax of what painting means and the tension between representation and abstraction.
The show’s primary flaw is its inscrutability: Viewers will need to spend some quality alone time with Drennen’s show and work hard to make the connections. “Bandit” is very much an intellectual and also a formal enterprise steeped in ideas about painting, culture and consumption. Whether Drennen’s show will get you in the Christmas spirit or send you into a funk is yet to be determined.
Through Jan. 27. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Free to members and U.S. military with ID; $8 for nonmembers; $5 for students and seniors (65+). Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, 75 Bennett St., Atlanta. 404-367-8700, mocaga.org.
Bottom line: Santa Claus, Shakespeare and the almighty dollar sign mark artist Craig Drennen’s solo exhibition about painting, modernism, culture and commerce.