PROVIDENCE — The last 50 or so years has seen a succession of cheeky artists who twit the preciousness of art, from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons. Alejandro Diaz belongs in that category. His show "RISD Business: Sassy Signs and Sculptures by Alejandro Diaz," at Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art, is a laugh and a half. It's also sometimes poignant, and occasionally problematic.
A marquee on wheels stands outside the museum entrance, topped by an arrow studded with blinking lights. It reads: "Free toaster with every new museum membership." It's not just art, it's truth in advertising. As long as supplies last — and there were more than a dozen still available early this week — new members will be given a toaster signed by the artist. The offer is not the ploy of the RISD museum's membership office, it's part of the artist's construct, and the dissonance between low-end retail and highbrow gimmickry is pointed and funny.
The same goes for the life-size cardboard cutout of Diaz's aunt Irene Chavez, a San Antonio high school principal, which greets visitors in the gallery. You can have your picture taken with Aunt Irene for $5; Diaz will donate the proceeds to a charity. Another sign outside: "Naked Artist Inside." (There is no truth to this advertising.)
Diaz's signs are the strongest works in the show. There's a whole wall of them, some in neon and a group that resembles marker scrawled on cardboard — like the signs people begging change hold up at intersections — although they're much sturdier, made of paint, wood, and cast resin. This series is called "Povera Lite" after Arte Povera, an aesthetic taken up in Italy in the 1960s that focused on spare materials and skewering power structures.
The signs play against stereotypes about such things as homelessness ("Looking for Nice Upper East Side Lady With Clean Elegant Apt. (Must Have Cable)," Chicanos ("Mexicans Without Borders"), and art (my favorite, "The Filet Mignon of Affordable Conceptual Art"). They make up a peanut gallery of tart, fresh commentary that feels almost too quick-witted for a staid institution.
A metaphorical equivalent hangs nearby: "To Cheer Yourself Up, Insert Flowers" plays against the weighty import of painting in the art world, a value perhaps most exemplified by art museums. Diaz has painted a canvas orange, slashed it open, and inserted a bouquet of artificial pink flowers into the slit, as if to say, "don't take it all so seriously."
But his real message isn't to accentuate the divide between serious and light, high and low. Rather, Diaz suggests that the line is artificial, that tastemakers such as art museums can be arbitrary and exclusionary. That's hardly breaking news. Here, Diaz has a similar agenda to the Guerrilla Girls, if a different approach.
His installation "Diaz Art Foundation" teases and critiques the Dia Art Foundation, which was founded in Texas in 1974 as the Lone Star Foundation, and is now based in New York. "I've always been conflicted by and attracted to the international glamour of what the Dia represented," writes the Mexican-born, Texas-based artist in the wall text, "but even to this day it's amazing to me how Mexican-Americans are invisible to the art world – especially with something that originated in Texas. How could that happen?"
So he has created an exhibition within his exhibition, a windowed-off gallery full of his own eclectic collection, which ranges from Mexican folk art to a Warhol "Flowers" print, to works by his colleague Franco Mondini-Ruiz, who likes to push the same buttons Diaz does. A highlight: Diaz's own "Du Buffet Table," his antic tribute to another artist who challenged conceptions of high art, Jean Dubuffet, which features some biomorphic, Dubuffetesque forms squirming out of silver vessels.
The presentation coheres; it's a rich grouping, full of associations, and it thrives on the artist's wit. But in an era when museums routinely work across disciplines, make unexpected links, and invite artists to curate, "Diaz Art Foundation" is another drop in the bucket.
His sculptures, too, don't always meet their mark. The best is "Model for the Diaz Art Foundation," a rickety structure made of stacked birdcages painted blue and tied together with a rope. It looks as if it belongs in the trash heap, but here it towers over the tiny model trees and inch-tall figures used in architectural modeling, and the contrast between the prototype those accessories suggest and the monster we're given is a hoot.
But "Rubble Without a Cause," a pile of concrete, dirt, and broken pottery, feels like wordplay forced into flesh, and "Cassandra," featuring a neoclassical marble statue strapped with shopping bags filled with Diaz's signs, precariously positions the artist as a cursed prophet – a bit of egotism he would have better steered clear of.
These days, art institutions welcome critique. Even as Diaz entertainingly flouts museum custom with cheesy gimmicks and a decidedly satiric aesthetic, he does it all under the patronage of the museum – which kind of takes the sting out of it. What fun is needling a subject who benignly nods, and even foots the bill?
Well. It's a little bit fun. To think, I could have taken home a toaster!