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“Team Response:

China Pizza Chicken King”

At G Fine Art to Aug. 16

I’ve been shunning McDonald’s ever since reading Fast Food Nation: “There is shit in the meat.” But when the missus and I were looking for some late vittles a couple of Sundays ago, it was the only place that would do. We’d been out in the yard all day and were filthy, so we didn’t want a sit-down place. And we needed something we could eat without, y’know, touching it. Sure, we could have chosen a nearby Mobil station or the Slowest Friendly’s in the World, but jerky wasn’t going to hold us and we didn’t have all night. So began our tawdry little journey into the grotesque.

The Filet-O-Fish was what dog-food commercials used to call “crunchewy”—crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside. But we knew we were in trouble when the chocolate shakes came out with sundae lids. The containers bulged with poorly blended, unslurpable glop, frothy yet troublingly dense. Rebecca detected a stratum of strawberry in hers; I kept hitting spirals of undiluted syrup. I pride myself on being able to stomach whatever culinary science throws at me—Coney Island-hot-dog-and-mustard-

flavored potato chips? Bring ’em on—but my dietary limits had been reached. Who’s going to eat all this crap? The next morning I found out: I was soon directing an enfilade of Raid at the chain of ants that linked the kitchen door to the overflowing garbage can crested with shake mess.

In failing to maintain product consistency, an anonymous shake jockey—excuse me, team member—had committed the cardinal McDonald’s sin. A truly memorable visit to a fast-food joint is about as welcome as an unforgettable trip to the bank: It can mean only that something’s gone quite wrong.

Or right, as in the case of China Pizza Chicken King, the knowing simulation of a fast-food franchise installed at G Fine Art by the D.C.-based three-man collective Team Response. Matt Sutton, Jason Balicki, and Justin Barrows have turned the second-story space into a spanking-new outlet of an imaginary contender in the race to “fill your gut,” as the chain’s no-nonsense slogan has it.

The room vibrates with the tart haze that glares off lemon-yellow walls. Booths of the same color bracket white-legged red tables, each appointed with a set of ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles. By the corner, a trash can beams a cheery “Thank You” from its swinging door to patrons considerate enough to bus their own tables. On top of it, a stack of blue plastic trays encourages others to get with the program. A waist-high red-white-and-blue stripe unifies the decor, tying booth to wall to trash can. The gallery’s welcoming garishness stands in marked contrast to the hunter-green-and-brick scheme of the Dean & DeLuca across the street.

On the wall as you enter is China Pizza Chicken King’s mascot, a desperate chimera of crowned panda head, feathered chicken body, fried chicken legs, and pepperoni-slice wings. Eyeless and smiling, the tip of its tongue stuck out as in a schoolgirl’s doodle of a puppy, the beast doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Unsure that it can do any one thing well enough to beat the big boys, CPCK is out to be all things to all people—except burgers, everyone does burgers—and so is doomed to do them all badly.

Because Team Response has had to conform its furnishings to the gallery space rather than design everything from the ground up, the way big corporate concerns do, the installation embodies the not-quite-rightness of the small-time food-service hopeful slotted uneasily into a rental space at a strip center. With facture that blends the handmade and the generic, the furnishings themselves extend the theme. The rough edges and uneven lines of the place’s medium-density fiberboard are no match for the sleek plastics of the megafranchise, whose focus-grouped palettes look much spiffier than the brittle, blaring primaries chosen for CPCK.

The setup also represents the predicament of the emerging artist who is unsure of how closely to ape the aesthetic established by the industry’s dominant players and of how to position himself relative to his peers—though it’s unclear how much of this anxiety is autobiographical. Since graduating from the Corcoran College of Art and Design last year, Sutton, Balicki, and Barrows have constructed a mountain-cum-clubhouse for Decatur Blue’s “DB Sides,” made a foray into simulated nature for the DCAC’s “On Our Turf,” and shown a carpet sculpted with crop circles at Conner Contemporary Art, where a CPCK minifranchise occupied the front office until last week. Perhaps consciously resisting defining their niche so early on, the artists have yet to nail down a signature style.

Team Response is after more than just a nervous skewering of upstart ambition, however. China Pizza Chicken King is that rare idea that seems both unremarkably inevitable and brimful with implication. Although devoid of a eureka moment, the installation blithely extends its conceptual tendrils across the broad landscape of contemporary art.

Appropriation abuts abjection, just as it did in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but China Pizza Chicken King also references the art-world mannerisms of serial imagery (within the installation as a whole) and series production (of the individually salable elements). The seriality that permitted Frank Stella, for example, to define himself when young—and has become both an aesthetic and a career strategy for most postwar artists—is a form of branding that gives discrete objects mass-cultural reach. It also provides a hedge against the potential historical gap that would result from the loss of any unique object. Push that idea into the realm of everyday commerce and you’ve got the global franchising behemoth in a nutshell: similar product available worldwide with no loss of corporate identity should any single outlet fail.

Melding Juddsy minimalism with the design art that runs from Scott Burton to Andrea Zittel, Team Response stops in at Claes Oldenburg’s Store and Keith Haring’s Pop Shop. A security camera, which recorded the opening as a kind of happening, feeds into a monitor that offers you the Naumanian experience of watching yourself leave the room. And with the most affordable items for sale being readymade multiples corresponding to the offerings on the menu board, links can also be made to the food-service-as-art interventions of Gordon Matta-Clark and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Four bucks will get you a culturally befuddled Kabuki Quart, two a 32-ounce Gut Buster, five a Coop Scoop. For $3, you can purchase a whiff of vegetarian wrath along with a Meat Luster Deep Dish.

Except there’s no food. When Tom Sachs constructed a homespun Mickey D’s as part of his 2002-2003 show at New York’s Bohen Foundation, he fired up the fryers to feed the crowds at his Tuesday-night slot-car races. But at G, all the containers are empty. The condiment bottles are nearly weightless. All the surfaces are spotlessly clean, because they’ve never been used. You’re not afraid to touch anything, even the trash can—a singular perception in my experience. China Pizza Chicken King offers accommodation without substance: You can sit and talk, you can listen to the piped in early-’80s output of Hall and Oates, but you can’t eat. There’s no opportunity for nourishment. But neither is there any for disgust.

It’s almost impossible to think stern, critical thoughts amid the manic sedation of all that sunshiny yellow, but they start to sneak up on you after you go. The more they make themselves heard, the less China Pizza Chicken King seems to be aimed at any supposed vacuity or sterility in contemporary art. Once you get home, you may even suspect someone’s gotten your order mixed up: At G, the art metaphors bounce off the walls; later on, the piece twists itself into a satire on the ever-expanding American appetite. That’s a typical target of the disillusioned post-collegian, but the installation allows Team Response to work through generational crisis without playing false either side of its ambivalence toward a culture that thrives on consumable pop trash. A China Pizza Chicken King logo T-shirt can be ordered, but, true to form for any restaurant that’s got “China” in its name, there’s also an implicit fortune: Less isn’t more; less is less—and maybe we should learn to like it that way. CP