'See Something? Say Something!' at American University's Katzen

Arts Center
By Jessica Dawson
Friday, July 16, 2010; C08
"See something? Say something!"
By now, most Washington area commuters tune out Metro Lady's recorded admonition, the one that's broadcast through subway stations at all-too-regular intervals.
Unpack those two sentences, though, and you've got a chilling message. Isn't she really saying: "People might want to kill innocent Metro riders. Would-be terrorists could act strangely or leave unattended packages. Let us know if you spot one"?
Pair that subterranean warning with its incongruously chirpy delivery and you've got a particularly 21stcentury American dissonance. It's the paradox of post-9/11 society in a country that came late to the notion of domestic terrorism.
Does Metro Lady speak of the banality of evil? The futility of mass paranoia? The ubiquity of surveillance? Yes, yes and yes.
The richness of Metro Lady's caution was not lost on Gery De Smet when the artist, 49, visited Washington two years ago. De Smet's work engages many of the issues implicit in Metro Lady's message, even as he approaches them from a more Eurocentric vantage (he's based in Belgium and exhibits largely in Europe).
"See Something? Say Something!" is the title of the artist's sharp, sardonic solo exhibition at American University's Katzen Arts Center. The suite of paintings tucked into the museum's uppermost reaches (and, happily, the only Katzen galleries genuinely hospitable to painting) is a worthy visual expression of Metro Lady's concerns.
In one painting, De Smet paints the phrase into a hillside as if it were Los Angeles's "Hollywood" sign. Imagine that warning blasting silently across the L.A. basin -- it just might happen in a not-too-distant future.
What's striking about De Smet's work is that he packages a contemporary message in the old-fashioned, messy medium of painting. And not just painting, but painterly painting -- in his best works, De Smet's tactile surfaces and curious color juxtapositions make you want to reach out and touch them. (Or, in my case, steal a few.) His charismatic surfaces bring humanity to subjects that might otherwise feel blisteringly cold.
De Smet's strongest works hail from a series called "U loot I shoot," a group of smallish canvases that are roughly notebook-page-size. The artist derived that label from a spray-painted warning in post-Katrina New Orleans, but removed from that context, the phrase suggests a more generalized trigger-happiness. One of my favorites is the strange canvas called "Pflaumen Abzugeben." Its title comes from the sign that hangs, almost abstractedly, from a fence in the foreground. That fence, traced in heavy black acrylic, stands before a house and a tree painted in broad black outlines. Filling in those lines is a hue so vivid it's probably best described as "security orange." The pigment alone gives off a sense of urgency and watchfulness.
The sign, written in German, indicates that plums are for the taking -- sort of. De Smet says such signs are posted in areas where selling fruit isn't legal; instead, vendors claim to be giving them away. So "Pflaumen Abzugeben," with its pirated fruit selling and five-alarm palette, becomes an emblem of toeing some (not always clear) moral or public line.
Other works in "See Something? Say Something!" reference GPS, airports and crowds. The exhibition's largest canvases hail from a series called "Today All Circuits Are Closed," a title evoking clogged phone lines or jammed airwaves but depicting something more literal. Each painting is a portrait of a racetrack: Germany's Nuerburgring, Britain's Silverstone, Indianapolis Motor Speedway. De Smet paints them with a vagueness reminiscent of satellite images. You might briefly mistake them for airport runways. As in all of De Smet's work, a surveiled world emerges.
Metro Lady, we see everything. Should we say something?