A detail from one of Salter's "Icon-a-lot 2." (PHOTO COURTESY OF NBMAA / May 29, 2012)

Michael Salter: Visual Plastic

Ends Aug. 19, New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, (860) 229-0257,


When you enter the Cheney Gallery at the New Britain Museum of American Art, you think you have quickly sized up artist Michael Salter at a single glance. The works in "Michael Salter: Visual Plastic" — the latest installation in the NBMAA's often exciting NEW/NOW series — are sparse in number and displayed in almost Spartan fashion, eye-catching advertisement-like images of all shapes and sizes scattered about like the visuals at a psychedelic Chinese restaurant.

One piece screams "Special Sauce." Another shouts "100% Real." Salter's work is easy to look at, easy to take in at a glance and easy to put behind you. Like advertisements, in a way. But then you see the one that announces "Guaranteed To Kill," the dot over the "i" in "Kill" being a skull that is stylized so innocently that you really don't notice it at first.

And this is when you begin to suspect that Salter may have pulled one over on you. Look again. Look more closely. Spend more time examining the seemingly random assortment of images in the larger works. These aren't randomly selected after all — at least no more so than most other images in the museum. In fact, these are subversive glyphs that seem to exist just beyond one's ability to perceive them. Double takes abound. A fish with a firecracker in its mouth? Two bolts of lightning holding hands? Toilet seats? Nipple tweaks? A middle finger slyly extended around the side of the picture frame?

Steeped in the language of modern graphic design — Salter is the director of the digital arts program at the University of Oregon — the artist seems to be making a comment about the power of branding in our lives. At the opening to his show, which was packed with family and friends from Bristol, Conn., where Salter was born and raised, someone thought they recognized the umbrella in one of his works.

According to Melissa Nardiello, NBMAA marketing and design manager, "They said 'Ah, you're influenced by Travelers insurance' and he said, 'No, you are influenced by Travelers because you see that, where I just see an umbrella.'"

Because the images with which Salter works — including 3-D toy designs, semiotics, murals, kinetic sculpture and animation — are so simple, clean, almost innocent-looking, they are easy to dismiss as an elaborate prank or ironic wink. But Salter is aiming at something deeper, beseeching viewers to step back from the commercial swirl in which we bathe. Salter has said his art is intended "to sort out the cacophony of visual noise in order to rethink meaning, motive, perception and narrative."

"Michael is not straight-on mocking the bombardment of advertising images and corporate logos but is expressing how they affect people," says Nardiello. "His answer to the bombardment is to just slow down and look."

Almost all of the flat images in "Visual Plastic" are vinyl stickers that are then mounted on fiber board, like signs you'd see at a hip shopping mall. He calls the pieces that comprise several stickers "icon-a-lots"; these montages are the most appealing in the show. A roomful of them would keep viewers scratching their heads for hours.

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