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Galleries | Cate McQuaid

Art as profit-and-loss statement

Tim Portlock’s “Rain of Signs” in “CASH4GOLD” at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University.
Tim Portlock’s “Rain of Signs” in “CASH4GOLD” at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University.(SMFA/Tufts)

Capitalism is the proverbial water that Americans swim in. “Museum of Capitalism,” at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, makes a heroic, acidic, and tongue-in-cheek effort to examine that water.

The show, organized by curator Abigail Satinsky, is a scaled-down version of one staged last year in Oakland by the artist group FICTILIS.

Imagine we live in a post-capitalist world, and have the time and resources to reflect. This particular museum critiques rather than venerates. There’s no patriotic praise of a system mythologized by pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Here, the valuing of profit above all else has caused environmental catastrophe, a boom-and-bust roller coaster, a widening gap between rich and poor, and more.

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Art and so-called artifacts make the case. Photographer Tim Portlock’s “CASH4GOLD” series spotlights San Bernadino, Calif., a city walloped by the Great Recession. His digitized images resemble slick and pretty video games, with confetti and rainbows, but they depict empty lots.

Jesse Sugarmann’s video installation “We Build Excitement” memorializes Pontiacs, which General Motors stopped manufacturing in 2009. Car lovers testify, former factory workers re-enact the choreography of their labor, and sculptural car wrecks make bleak totems to a peculiarly American appetite for automotive power.

Context is everything. The label for artist James McAnally’s COAL=JOBS baseball cap anthropologically parses sports fandom, branding, and political funding. An early cardboard Barbie Dream House is displayed, the label says, “in a staging reminiscent of the many forms of violence that could result when consumer culture promoted unrealistic standards of feminine beauty and visions of domestic security.”

Reality presented as relic. It’s jarring, and strangely hopeful.

Capitalism has spawned horrors. It has also made many lives better. This futuristic show hints that whatever system succeeds it will be more humane, but that’s simplistic utopianism. Any ideology implemented on a large scale will stumble badly. “Museum of Capitalism” skewers where the system has gone wrong. Maybe, rather than eradicate capitalism, we need to reinvent it. Or at least rein it in.

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MUSEUM OF CAPITALISM

At School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, 230 The Fenway, through Oct. 25. 617-627-3518, https://smfa.tufts.edu/events-exhibits/galleries


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid
@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.