Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Look At The Sinister Side.

Saw the "Sinister Side of Pop" show at The Whitney recently.  I liked it more than the recent "Regarding Warhol" at the Met.  It just seemed more relevant to the sixties and early seventies.   Most of the artwork in it  touched on or represented critical issues of the era----and it certainly was a tumultuous time:  The Vietnam war, racial politics, women's liberation, the sexual revolution, political assassination, suburban sprawl, the rise of the so-called "highway culture," consumerism run amok-----these are issues addressed in the show.  Although I'm not the most political person, I sometimes consider  whether my paintings should address issues of today----i.e., global warming.  So, I was particularly interested in seeing how the artists represented in this exhibition managed to incorporate social/political/environmental commentary into their art, while still creating works that standup on purely aesthetic grounds.  (There were only three works in the show that felt less like art than like private scribblings.)

Allan D'Arcangelo's "Landscape," 1964, is a wonderful example of a painting that works on purely aesthetic grounds while commenting on the rise of the so-called "highway culture."  It conveys the uniformity of the interstate system taking shape in the sixties:  The nondescriptness of the roadway, surrounding land and roadblock convey the sense of anonymity that uniformity on a massive scale has.  D'Arcangelo's highway could be anywhere in the U.S.; and therefore, nowhere.  Thereby, the painting makes a statement about a loss of any sense of community, or place.  At the same time, he has abstracted the shapes of the highway and roadblock in a way that makes it clear that this painting is meant to be viewed purely as a work of art too.  Through the use of strong diagonal shapes coupled with flat color and simplified shapes, D'Arcangelo plays with the illusion of three-dimensionality versus the two-dimensioality of the canvas plane.  The effect is an amusing visual pun:  The viewer's eye is both stopped by the flatness of  the roadblock and other shapes, but led by strong diagonals down the highway, toward a vanishing point.
Likewise, Bill Owens' photographs depict the uniformity of the suburban architecture.  His suburban houses and other structures have a prefabricated quality that is not site specific.  These buildings could exist anywhere in the United States, which makes them seem oddly insubstantial.  As a consequence, his photographs are disorienting----the viewer can't quite make out the locations shown.  The social landscape in these pictures has an absence of any real sense of community; therefore, they convey a mood of alienation. Owens photographs, as well as others in the show, reminded me of the Rod Sterling television series, "The Twilight Zone," with its science fiction fantasies that take place in some weird parallel universe.  (I'm not old enough to have seen the series when it first aired, but I did see it in syndication years later, when I was growing up.)

The uniformity and prefabricated qualities evident in Owens' suburban landscapes and D'Arcangelo's highway is also present in William Eggleston's print "Untitled,"1972 and Sturtevant's "Study for Rosenquist's Spaghetti and Grass,"1965-66.

William Eggleston, Untitled, 1972, from the "Troubled
Waters" portfolio, 1980.
The meat pies and ice cream in Eggleston's freezer are mass-produced items that will appear over and over again in similar freezers across the country.  Likewise, the spaghetti and tomato sauce in Sturtevant's picture look as if they came from a can:  It is preprocessed food.  (It looks as if it would be hazardous to eat the stuff, too!)  These meals were not homemade, they are devoid of an human touch----like so much else in a culture of mass production.

The commodification of the female body (or more specifically female sexuality) is suggested in both Tom Wesselmann's "Great American Nude, #57," 1964 and Rosalyn Drexler's "Love and Violence," 1965.   In Wesselmann's painting, a woman reclines----in a pose that made me think of Manet's "Olympia."  However, Wesselmann's nude woman has no facial features save for a lipsticked mouth----her personal identity seems to have been erased!  Her body has pronounced bikini lines too (which draw the viewer's eye to her breasts and groin).   The image is both impersonal and sexual at the same time:  Woman reduced to sexual plaything!  But, despite the disturbing details of the figure, the bold graphics and muted colors combine to make a very sensuous painting:  That makes the artist's message  seem ironical rather than angry.

Rosalyn Drexler's painting "Love and Violence," 1965 also employs handsome graphics in combination with disturbing images to make a statement about women and violence against women and the commodification of both.  According to the show's wall text, her images are drawn from pulp fiction covers and B-movie posters----and they look it!  The top of the painting depicts a woman being brutalized by a man, the lower part shows what looks to be a life and death struggle between two male figures.  That all the images are recognizably drawn from lowbrow entertainment, makes a pointed statement about the connection between violence, including sexual violence and mass culture.  The campiness of the graphics belies the violence of the images giving Drexler's painting an ironic twist.

Love and Violence, 1965.
The show also includes several works protesting the Vietnam war.  (I must admit that with the exception of Peter Saul's exuberant "Saigon," 1967, these pieces looked more like personal notes someone might tack to a bulletin board above their desk, than fully realized works of art.)  Saul's painting is quite jarring to look at initially----both stylistically and content wise.  The painting suggests a grotesque scene of rape and torture. All of which is rendered in an exuberantly cartoonish style in which the figures are distorted almost to the point of abstraction.  In day-glo colors no less!  His style, overall,  is quite grotesque looking----just perfect for his subject matter!  Saul has written on his painting:  "WHITE BOYS TORTURING AND RAPING... " and "HIGH CLASS VERSION."  The words are meant to be ironical, of course, but the implication is also that the war, or more accurately the media coverage of it, has become just an entertainment of sorts to the public; just something that one would watch complacently from the sidelines----and Saul's painting is protesting that, perhaps as much as the war itself.  (I always admire painters who have the courage to make art that flies in the face of conventional standards of good taste:  An ugly image can pack more visual punch than a "tasteful" one, but I would think it would be harder to win fans.)

Unlike The Met's recent "Regarding Warhol"show, this is no celebration of consumer culture!  The cool detachment seen in the earlier show is absent here.  In its place is art that is fully engaged, politically and socially!  This interesting show is credited to Donna De Salvo, Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs at The Whitney.  (The show runs through March 31.)

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