Making art that's both creatively powerful and morally instructive is no easy task. The key to fulfilling both instincts (should they clash) is subtlety. A work that brazenly espouses a cause to the point of resembling propaganda makes it difficult to appreciate both the art and its message. But if an artist aims to make a work emotionally resonant first and foremost, carefully slipping in his message along the way, he can relay a lesson without seeming judgmental.
Last Supper, C Maxx Stevens’ site-specific installation at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, has trouble achieving that subtlety. The topic—how diabetes affects Native Americans—hits close to home for Stevens, who is Seminole and Muskogee and has seen relatives suffer from the disease. The statistics accompanying Last Supper are alarming; one figure notes that diabetes affects 16.1 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives age 20 and older who are served by the Indian Health Service. Stevens is determined to spread awareness of this epidemic.
But her approach to Last Supper is heavy-handed. Rather than gaining a gradual appreciation for its subject, the viewer is force-fed a moralistic lesson.
Upon entering the museum's South Gallery, gallerygoers are greeted with two posters as urgent and condescending as, well, propaganda. The first, with images of corn kernels scattered on its background, reads, "TRADITIONAL FOODS ARE NUTRITIONAL." Its counterpart, with its type set against pastries, warns, "CONTEMPORARY TRADITIONAL FOOD CAN BE DEADLY." Stevens' go-right-for-the-throat approach has admirable aspects, but presenting messages in this way is belittling. Even if the viewer were somehow unaware of contemporary traditional food's unhealthiness, there has to be a more imaginative way of conveying it.
The primary portion of the exhibition is its most provocative. Last Supper’s centerpiece consists of three tables carrying an inedible feast: doughnuts, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, cake and other treats—all appearing as white wax sculptures. Charts near the centerpiece indicate the food’s nutrition facts. (The results aren’t pretty.)
From a distance, the food seems to be coated with powdered sugar (making it more delicious, if you're the gluttonous sort), but upon closer inspection, it's covered with a seductively glittery powder made of salt and crushed glass. This makes for an effective reveal, conveying that these foods' appeal is deceptive and they can be ruthlessly destructive upon consumption.
The room contains two other highlights. One is a giant spread of sculpted shoes and canes littered under the feast, evoking the relics of lives cut short by diabetes. The other is the drumbeat that ominously echoes through the space. It sounds like a heart pumping blood. Its stream of notes is interspersed with crows cawing, as if death is always lurking near someone who consumes this food.
In sum, Last Supper feels incomplete because it doesn’t delve into why Native Americans consume this kind of food and where it stands in their culture. Some humor would go far in counterbalancing its public-service-announcement feel (expect repeated references to the National Diabetes Education Program), and perhaps learning a story of how the disease affected someone’s life would help humanize the reality. As it is, the exhibition is too rhetorical and lesson-minded for its own good.
Through Dec. 31
Museum of Contemporary Native Arts
108 Cathedral Place