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Michael Salter's Visual Function makes playful graphic use of symbols

Walking into The Sting-Ray Room, a nightclub on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh, you're immediately met with assorted kitschy '70s and '80s pop culture motifs, playfully and expertly merged, which set the stage for an intrinsically sensual environment. But the most telling aspect of The Stingray Room, much like its unofficial counterparts, Vertigo Diner and Humble Pie, is that you don't go to see it so much as to be seen in it.

Opened by Raleigh residents Bill Mooney and Barbara Herring in 1994, the bar and its pool room have become a hub of sorts for artists and musicians, who on any given night can be found cavorting in an arena where style and artistic substance are auspiciously aligned. Last month, the husband-and-wife team sold the club in order to simplify a schedule that currently includes running their successful screen-printing business, Tannis Root Productions--a supplier of product and designs for musical acts like Sonic Youth, Beck, and R.E.M.--and making preparations for their own rock star in utero.

And leave it to these two to go out with a bang: June's special treat for patrons was an exhibition of visual artist Dale Flattum's Maxine series, a group of sequential art screen prints on wood, expertly crafted and printed by Tannis Root. This month, their parting gift is a series by Flattum's former studiomate at Raleigh's LUMP Gallery--assistant professor of fine art at Mount Olive College and Raleigh resident, Michael Salter.

Not noticing Salter's work as you enter The Sting-Ray Room would be like disregarding a series of traffic signs on a busy street corner. Once in an environment that requires constant attention, you naturally seek guidance, and Salter's imagery initially leads you in a comfortable manner, by apparently banal, graphic imagery that suggests familiarity and safety. If, at this point, that false security allows your attention to wander, then you haven't given the work careful consideration--which is one of the ironies of these pieces. Salter is tapping into what we are least in touch with consciously: how we give, receive, and potentially overlook visual information.

In his provocative book on the nature of seeing, The Object Stares Back, art historian James Elkins writes about the infidelity of our own eyes: "Our eyes are not ours to command; they roam where they will and then tell us they have only been where we have sent them. Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism."

If the eyes and mind are consciously connected only in rare moments of duplicity, what happens with the massive amount of visual information we receive day to day, hour to hour, second to second? Michael Salter has some theories about accessing that leftover information, and he might just be headed for the bull's-eye.

Visual Function came about when Mooney approached Salter about producing a limited series of prints, a set of which Salter traded in return for replicating the series in two formats: four sets on plexiglass and six sets on heavy archival paper, titled Visual Function, a continuing series. The six Plexiglas panels are reminiscent of directional, safety or corporate signage; graphic black and white lines surround decidedly industrial primary blue and yellow. The deceptively simple narratives depicted here have multiple associations, accompanied by standardized text spelling out familiar ownership rights, in paragraphs nearly as large as the images they protect.

In one print, titled "PGSS-04 Chilly Finger," the logo-stylized image of an armless white hand moves downward with its extended index finger, inserting itself into the top of an idealized ice cream cone symbol, the cone itself appearing to be formed from industrial graph paper. The curled and bubbly edge of the yellow scoop of ice cream seems ridiculously well formed, the scoop itself a perfect sphere, while the fingertip disappears just inside the top of the yellow, creating or being invited by a gaping black hole. A hidden button is suggested, accompanied by a finger that acts without thought or reason, and suddenly the scoop of ice cream becomes atomic, almost a mushroom cloud shape. What was initially an innocuous symbol is now foreboding, the title amplifying a chilling reminder of fingers, buttons, and the sexual/political connections between the two.

"PGSS-06 Chemical Coat" depicts a small sky-blue rabbit poised sphinx-like, cowering under the weight of a giant suspended test tube. The same yellow, now resembling lacquered pollen in color and form, oozes from the tube onto the back of the bunny, whose thick black outer line is rendered traditionally warm and cuddly. This outline is juxtaposed with thin, frail inner lines; the eye is small, white, and perfectly round, lifeless and disaffected. The simplicity of form and subject matter are disarming, though associations of scale and power are immanent. The title's reference to the seemingly benign practice of chemical coating in the pharmaceutical, textile and agricultural industries has taken on new and somewhat sinister meanings, yet is presented in a formulaic, harmless and even helpful fashion. Again, the focus of the imagery is multifaceted and initially undisclosed. The viewer determines the object so that seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism.

In the remaining panels, we first witness a businessman and a generic blue-collar worker facing each other in three-quarter profile, cartoon bubbles emerging from their heads, which contain smaller versions of each man occupying one another's "thoughts." As in much of Salter's work, this oddly affecting image, "PGSS-03 Thinking of You," resonates most in retrospect. The same is true of another panel depicting a logo-like floor speaker into which a shark has swum, disappearing from its head to its dorsal fin, leaving us to wonder for what purpose these two have met and joined, and for whose gain. In the next image, a dart stands majestically upright from its inserted position atop a tree stump, mimicking the previous finger and cone, with a deadpan title, "PGSS-05 Dart In Stump." The natural concentric circles in the age lines of the stump are so similar to those of a target that the viewer, through the artist's visual prodding, cannot help but appreciate the irony of a corporate sign giving information on the industrial destiny of trees.

In his own words, Salter sees the world as a setting for "a language that is never fully learned." Yet in his private attempt to interpret this unlearned language, he effortlessly merges design and fine art principles, questioning the ways in which each are viewed by current standards. The result is neither mere art nor mere design, but a gleefully artificial assemblage of the two that results in a familiar yet disturbing take on the nature of viewing imagery.

Salter is currently preparing for a solo exhibition at LUMP Gallery early next year, as well as for a show in January at Philadelphia's Space 1026 with Flattum and LUMP's co-owner and artist-in-residence, Bill Thelen. For the uninitiated, this could prove to be an eyeful. For those who won't be there to see Salter's solo show next year, The Sting-Ray Room provides an opportunity to stare and be stared at by Visual Function. EndBlock

  • Michael Salter's "Visual Function" commands your attention at the Sting-Ray Room.

More by Todd Fjelsted

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