Heaven on Earth

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Manfred Menz: Cloud Control

Manfred Menz is a conceptualist, an artist for whom ideas from the socioeconomic and political realms take primacy, but who nevertheless feels compelled to give them substantial physical expression. In sculptures, mixed media, printed works, and installations, and more frequently in recent years in digital photography, Menz always has a point to make.

His newest body of work is a suite of photographs called “Heaven on Earth: Imperialistic Evolution of the Corporate World.” It’s about the pernicious intrusiveness and low-key mind control perpetrated by the corporations that rule the world, even above and beyond governments. “Heaven on Earth” relates to previous collaborative series, notably “My Blessing” and “Natural Security” — both of which used the same labor-intensive techniques in finely detailed digitally manipulated images, juxtaposing culture and the environment to surreal effect.

Where “My Blessing” conflated religious fervor with materialist consumerism, “Natural Security” satirized the ubiquity of surveillance technology even in the world’s most remote and pastoral locations. All are animated by a slightly wicked sense of humor, and a facility for beauty; but ultimately the social critique is scathing. If possible, “Heaven on Earth” is even more dystopian. In each of its dozen or so natural and developed landscapes, the sky and air are emblazoned with corporate brand logos and slogans. As the motif repeats, each composition expresses ist own salient variation on the thought experiment.

Menz builds on art historical tropes of horizon and perspective, trees and roadways, but offers banal vistas to underscore the seeming ordinariness of the evils on display. Each tells a story of human devolvement couched as progress, and cognitive submission presented as entertainment. Take “Kleenex: Trusted Care” wafting across a vast cloud pillow above a glinting bay. This image seems innocuous, one could easily imagine it as a ready-made magazine ad. “Tampax: Pocket Pearl” takes the same gentle tone, if a bit more claustrophobically. “Aspirin” in the dense hovering mists of a wet canyon cloud, “Heinz: Grown, Not Made” above a phalanx of recycling bins, “American Airlines” in com-trails with downward trajectories — these hint at a lurking tone of darkness, or at least unease, within the series.

“Amazon” unfurls its copyrighted smile astride a cloud with a Sistine Chapel attitude of entitlement and resplendence. This image is evocative on multiple levels, because it speaks not only to the empire’s godlike powers but also to the linguistic accident that Amazon operates “in the cloud” in the sense of internet computing and our dependence on the convenience of privacy-invading technology. “Netflix: Watch Anywhere” also doubles up on the cloud metaphor; its imperative directive — to watch, or to be watched? — reads as promising and rather ominous.

The radiant of golden “Shell” hovers above a suburban horizon like a Hollywood movie sunset. “Coca-Cola” occupies a noble perch against the majestic cloud atop the mountain; behaving likethe king of all brands it knows itself to be. “Burger King” peeks out like a cathedral at the end ofa road from between verdant trees, and glows like Apollo’s chariot. “Goodyear: More Driven” is stretched, wryly, above a parking lot; its company logo is wing-footed Mercury (aka Hermes) the messenger god of Greek (and Roman) myth. “Nike: Engineered to Fly” soars above a chain-link fenced-in institutional loading zone plastered with prohibitive signage, lending a further depth of irony, since Nike was the winged goddess of victory in ancient Greece. There are nested codes like that inherent across the appropriated content itself, and it is worth decoding in its own right.

A tree-lined meadow with a riot of perfect clouds skip along in a fractal melody, each of the dozens with its own “Pfizer” logo. This too could be a convincing ad, rife with the familiar promise of sunny days inside a medicated mind. The opulent key work “Heaven on Earth” itself, posits the cheerful invasion of an array of familiar brand logos, covering all aspects of our consumer lives from food to technology. Like a shower of candy, like a heavenly host of angles, like the legions of tiny buddhist spirit guides flying in on lotuses in the world of ukiyo-e – this central image redefines cloud-seeding. The weather is changed, and new generations will from this point on live and die have never known a world without these messages. Is a world where the clouds themselves become billboards really so hard to imagine? Satire is at its best, when it’s hard to be certain what is fake, because the real is already so strange to begin with.

Shana Nys Dambrot, Los Angeles 2018