Robert Mihaly: Pantheon of Modern Gods
Louise Jones Brown Gallery, Duke Campus
Through May 5

Robert Mihaly seems perfectly at ease standing beside his sculpture “The Angel of Depleted Uranium” (2009), which incorporates a small sample of nuclear waste encased in a yellow and purple lead storage container. Depleted uranium, a neurotoxin and radioactive byproduct of uranium enrichment, is controversially used in munitions and armor plating.

While Mihaly is critical of its military use, citing studies suggesting it is responsible for illnesses and birth defeats, he insists his sample is safely “melted into a pretty, crystalline vitreous form” and, in terms of radiation hazard, the area around his exhibition at Louise Jones Brown Gallery is “safer than walking around Duke Hospital.”

Still, despite the artist’s reassurances, it is unsettling to behold the sealed (we hope) canister bolted to the limestone angel’s wooden base. And consider this: Someone of foolish or nefarious intent could easily pop it free with a screwdriver and swiftly whisk it out of the Bryan Center.

But then again, anyone seriously wanting to obtain radioactive materials can go online and legally order uranium-238 in its pure form, as Mihaly found out while researching the project. Mihaly says former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Bob Lazar told him his company, United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, could sell him five grams of 238 in its metallic form for $39, but also added, “The Nuclear Regulatory agency doesn’t always appreciate people ‘making statements’ with admittedly legal materials.” Afraid of a possible fine, Milhaly decided to purchase a sample of depleted uranium smelted into glass, which he could obtain from an unlicensed source.

Lazar did not respond to requests for comment.

Mihaly clearly intends to provoke controversy with Pantheon of Modern Gods. In addition to depleted uranium, the displayed paintings and sculptures include other potentially incendiary materials: blood, human bones, gunpowder, Cuban cigars, poppy seeds and unpasteurized milk.

Eschewing any sort of ambiguity or postmodern detachment, Pantheon is an almost frenzied denunciation of 21st-century society. In case you miss the not-so-subtle popular culture references (like the V for Vendetta-styled Guy Fawkes mask or the Star Wars Stormtrooper), Mihaly includes dozens of quotations from a wide ranging group of celebrity and historical figures to literally spell out his analysis of how authority wields power.

Some may find it easy to dismiss Mihaly’s show as an anarchist screed, and indeed Pantheon’s subject mattereugenics, population control, brainwashing and domestic totalitarianismreaches far beyond the stunted vernacular of partisan politics. Those being exposed to the ideas for the first time are likely to feel as though they’ve stepped into an alternative reality. But, like the radioactive sample, Mihaly’s ideas deserve careful considerationthey’re potentially explosive.

There’s little that’s blithe in the universe that Mihaly is presenting. Take “Epiphany” (2009), an electric blender filled with human bones, lollipops and plastic Easter eggs. Unlike Marco Evaristti’s “Helena” (2000), where the artist put goldfish in blenders and invited passersby to liquefy them, purportedly to explore “beauty’s transiencethe fine line between existence and nothingness,” Mihaly isn’t playing games in abstraction. His “Epiphany” doesn’t shock only to create an empty spectacle.

Accompanying the work is an illuminating quote from a State Department official calling the carpet-bombing of Laos “very cost-effective.” Though Mihaly’s blender isn’t plugged in, we can take another quote, from Robespierre, to be inviting viewer participation: “We cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

Another work intended to protest war is “Cherub” (2009), a sock monkey with human bones attached. During our interview in the gallery, Mihaly cradled the grisly creation with playful affection and mused on how children are affected by war. Human bones are apparently even easier to obtain than uranium. Mihaly says he ordered his from an online store called The Bone Roomthough he did so with ethical trepidation after he learned the remains came from India and China.

Mihaly’s paintings, examples of technical virtuosity in a variety of styles, are a hodgepodge of cultural iconography. Scarlett Johansson becomes the malevolent “Goddess of Media,” and a U.N. flag censors a miniature recreation of Picasso’s “Guernica.” George W. Bush, Joseph Stalin and Joseph Goebbels lurk ominously, while John Lennon, swathed in robes, becomes the “Demon of Peace.” And Marcel Duchamp, the 20th century’s archly apolitical “non-artist” and father of the “readymade,” seems to be prevalent everywhere in Pantheon.

Ironically, Mihaly seems more disturbed by his own show than most visitors. The artist says he’s amazed at the positive reception the work has received.

“It is simultaneously heartening and slightly disturbing,” he says. “Are people so inured to death in our culture that you can wave bones and blood and teeth in front of their faces, even combining the human bones with children’s toys, and few seem particularly moved? Or is it because they GET me and are really with it? Or is it because death is meaningless to them? I really have no idea.”