Faces and Denominations Get Updated With An Artist's Deft Touch

In the exhibit Funny Money, artist Josh Usmani riffs about the deep weirdness of our most crumpled, germ-laden means of exchange.

Ramping up the potential for controversy at this show at Tregoning & Company Fine Art, which features Usmani's  re-working of other people's — and other countries' ­— cash, is the scent of danger. Anything that involves faith or depictions of religious figures can be a magnet for craziness. Of course it's technically illegal to "deface" U.S. currency, however skillfully. But Usmani (who has been Scene's visual arts editor for the past year) risks bruising other, loonier toes than those of the U.S. Secret Service. The graven images that help make money official represent real power, and the artist pokes at them provocatively with his multi-colored Sharpies and Prismacolor pens, chipping at many an icon in the 20 or so works on view.

Using these markers as his trademark medium since long before he earned his 2013 bachelor's degree from Cleveland State University, Usmani (who turns 30 this week) has produced all kinds of drawings and exhibited them widely in Northeast Ohio. At Funny Money, he clowns around masterfully (and literally), making the over-sized noggin of Andrew Jackson look a bit like Ronald McDonald — a feat that's maybe not as hard as you might wish, but is redeemed by Usmani's manner. His style is lushly phantasmagorical, combining ornamental-looking sparkly balls and burgeoning bubbles with a super-focused take on psychedelia; sometimes Usmani recalls 1960's pop illustrator Peter Max, though in these meticulous works Max must be channeling a 16th-century Persian miniaturist. Adding to the associative mix is the current discussion in numismatic and feminist circles about the $20 bill; Jackson is already something of a fallen idol, soon to be replaced by a founding Mother or maybe even Sister, the first on U.S. paper currency. As it is, the only woman in this show is Queen Elizabeth, also in clown drag, looking as gender-bending and transgressive as the rest of the boys.

Maybe a clown is a good thing, at least compared to more sinister faces that appear on money around the world. But many people are afraid of clowns, and Usmani's money clowns are in fact pretty terrifying; his makeovers of Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth (everyone at Funny Money has the Rudolph-style classic nose; most have some amount of blue eye shadow and a Mardi Gras style mask) aren't going to cure "coulrophobia." Lincoln looks like Ben Vereen, with earrings and a glowing wig. But Washington is the guy to watch out for. On one of Usmani's previous $1 bills, he is outrageously wicked, sporting a pencil-thin mustache and matching goatee, like a minion of Cardinal Richelieu, or just plain Satan. Very funny, as long as you can forget John Wayne Gacy (or Pagliacci) and enjoy the ride.

Whether or not you're scared of clowns, or of money, or of everything that hasn't passed through a metal detector, how do you feel about a 10,000 IRR note? That's the Iranian rial denomination that pictures the late Ayatollah Khomeini, in dark robes and a blue turban, glowering like Sean Connery in the Name of the Rose. Usmani hasn't helped matters by packing on the clown-white, and the usual nose. The Muslim cleric who made fatwa a household word in the Western world looks deeply displeased. That can only be bad, and the thought of who else might react unfavorably to Usmani's teasing could make any artist nervous.

The real subjects at Funny Money are philosophical. Aside from enjoying himself (and he's having a ball), Usmani asks some subtle questions about authenticity and ownership, at the intersection of public and private space.  Like graffitti, his embellishments grab a piece of public surface and use it as a personal billboard. But it's hard to claim that Usmani is ruining any previously unspoiled rustbelt views, and it seems unreasonable that he shouldn't have the right to mess up his own property if he wants to. We're talking about ink on paper that exists mainly in the wallets and purses and pockets of the world, unexamined and for the most part unseen. Usmani has changed all that, made it un-spendable and at the same time radically visible, taking it right out of one sort of public utility, then reinventing it as fine art — as a commodity now, instead of the means of exchange. This is a cool, classically Dadaist move, with a Pygmalian-like, Cinderella twist, plus a theoretical thrust that could give nightmares to an economist. That this pretty tomfoolery could actually get him into trouble is food for much further thought. Never mind core values: How much freedom does any individual have to play around with the core of value? Where does the symbolism that is at the essence of money join with (or clash with) other untouchable systems of spiritual and political worth? In what way do you own those $10 bills buried in the family mason jar?

Very interesting what you can do with a few bucks, a fistful of markers, and a lot of talent.

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