Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1975. To commemorate its closing on February 2nd, we’re presenting this series of essays about the artists featured in Comic Future. Previously we looked at Walead Beshty and Arturo Herrera. In this final essay, Adam Helms offers an overview of the exhibition as a whole. Helms is a New York-based artist whose work was part of the Ballroom Marfa exhibitions You Are Here (2005) and Every Revolution is a Roll of the Dice (2007). Comic Future will travel to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio where it will be on view from May 17 through August 3, 2014. ——————————————– The Comic Presence After walking through the exhibition Comic Future, one work of art kept surfacing in my mind: Philip Guston’s San Clemente (1975), the grotesque lumbering caricature of Richard Nixon (fig. 1). In Guston’s later years, this single work (which metastasized into a painting from his drawing series From The Phlebitis Series (1975)) served as Guston’s vehicle for a gesture towards political satire, yet remained in keeping with his quasi-figurative language as a painter. Guston moved from his early years in the ’30s as a social realist into Abstract Expressionism; then finally to a mode of painting and draughtsmanship that incorporated personal narratives and symbols from within a cartoon or ‘comic’ figuration. The only painting of its kind in Guston’s oeuvre, San Clemente suggests that perhaps Guston had doubts about this particular piece. (1) Rather than the ambiguous identities of his Klansmen — or the heads, eyes and feet of his reoccurring figure subjects — this particular piece dealt with direct representation, Guston’s own anger and the politics of the time in which it was painted. San Clemente serves as Guston’s attempt to balance a work as both a history painting and a statement of political satire. In many ways, this Nixon cartoon caricature bridges the gap between Guston’s early social realist concerns — and politics — and the freedom he strove for as a painter breaking new ground rebelling in his departure from abstraction. For Guston’s intentions it straddles the issues of painting as much as it does political cartooning. Guston elevates the political and a mass cultural icon to the level of the sublime. It would be perhaps a form of alliteration to suggest that all of the artists in Comic Future directly reflect the bifurcation of Guston’s piece or intentions, but the spirit of San Clemente echoes throughout the exhibition. Beyond simply a selection of artists that deal with themes of ‘comic abstraction’ or even particular cultural references, Comic Future posits a multitude of questions surrounding political representation, archetypes and visual language, beauty and the grotesque and ultimately: painting and the materiality of objects through the prism of a ‘comical’ gesture. All of the artists represented here look to an appropriated and symbolic language to speak to the time and culture in which they find themselves and in which the works become a reflection or response. Though the intentions of individual artists may vary, the allure and levity of a visual comic language becomes a satirical and subversive conceptual strategy. Works on paper by Sigmar Polke, created between 1964-1969, All works courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London, Photography © Fredrik Nilsen The grouping of Sigmar Polke’s 13 works on paper (1964-69), involves an abject and almost proletariat language of comic-like capitalist imagery. This period of Polke’s work was generated during the postwar years of reconstruction in Germany and “apart from their self-critical questionings of Polke’s identity, parodied a taste for the trivial fueled by the banalities of everyday German life in postwar years and ensuing “economic miracle” (2). Polke together with Gerhard Richter saw their work at this time as “Capitalist Realism”. Influenced as a reaction to American Pop, Polke’s works indicate an almost investigative approach towards what he and his colleagues at the time saw as the “authentic cultural phenomenon” of Pop in the imagery of both the mass media and economic system of the West towards an art making moving from the structures of the conventional art of the time (3). In these works Polke remains ensconced between the camp of a Dadaist-like subversion of consumerist imagery and an embracing the visual apparatus of a mass culture that he would help to elevate to ‘high art’.
Arturo Herrera’s 88 DIA (1998), photo by Lesley Brown.
To commemorate the closing of Comic Future on February 2nd, we are presenting a series of essays and readings about some of the artists and their work represented in the show. Previously, we featured Walead Beshty, and his 2012 work, Unmasking. In this post, Ballroom’s Gallery Manager, Rebecca McGivney, discusses Arturo Herrera’s works in the show, including 88 DIA, which was commissioned specifically for Ballroom Marfa.
Comic Future will travel to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio where it will be on view from May 17 through August 3, 2014.
On the surface, Arturo Herrera’s two works in Comic Future, 88 DIA (1998) and Untitled (2001), look quite different. 88 DIA is a large colorful mural composed of a number of images. Though they at first appear somewhat abstract, the images quickly come into focus. A large potted plant topped by a red, spiky flower sits against a bright blue background. In the foreground, three cartoon birds fly above the figure of a girl. Although her head is hidden (or has been removed), she seems familiar.
Untitled also transforms the longer one focuses on it. At first it appears to be a large, black and white squiggle, somewhat reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock drip painting. It quickly becomes apparent that the entire drawing is composed of various recognizable shapes — namely some of the same shapes seen in 88 DIA. This is because both works use the same source material: Walt Disney’s 1937 classic, Snow White.
It is impressive that Herrera is able to disguise, even momentarily, such iconic images; but what is even more interesting is why he uses them at all. It is nothing new for an artist to take a familiar image and place it in a work of art; often, when one does so it is to critique and criticize what that image represents. As Roland Barthes notes in Mythologies: “the idols of consumer culture, car, refrigerator or screen goddess, have a totemic power in the modern age.” (Translated in S. Greeves, “The Language of the Wall”(MA Diss., the Courtauld Institute of Art, 1995), 29.) The most direct and effective way to break that power is by changing and subverting it. (see Sergei Chakhotin’s The Rape of the Masses: The Psychology of Totalitarian Political Propaganda, 1940)
Herrera, however, does not use these images expressly for the purpose of negation. Rather, they relate to his interest in modernism and its ideal of universality. In addition to Herrera’s various aesthetic references to modernism (his use of collage techniques and found material, as well as allusions to various artistic movements including surrealism, cubism, abstract expressionism, pop-art, and the affichistes, to name a few), the artist confirms that he is strongly attracted to the conceptual ideas behind modernism, particularly the belief that art is universal. As he explains in an interview: “Modernism’s boundless optimism and idealism created exciting visual realities. Some of these propositions failed or are no longer valid…. The key is to have a critical dialogue with this legacy.” Thus, while Herrera is attracted to these ideals, he differs in how he accomplishes them. While the modern artist hoped to create a work that could instantaneously convey its meaning through abstraction, Herrera uses the figurative and familiar to establish a “connection” and give the viewer something of which to grab hold: Snow White.
It is important to note that when Disney was first founded, the company’s work was seen as extremely modern. So much so that Sergei Eisenstein once declared Disney’s animations to be “the greatest contribution of the American people to art.” Walt Disney also shared in the modernist’s ideal of creating a universal art by appealing to our shared childhood. As he explained while defending his fantastical stories and imagery: “Everybody in the world was once a child. We grow up. Our personalities change, but in every one of us something remains of our childhood…. It just seems that if your picture hits that spot with one person, it’s going to hit that spot in almost everybody.” Herrera uses the same technique to entice the viewer into his work, the difference is that once one enters, Herrera, unlike Disney, no longer guides you. As he notes: “My work actually tries to discourage a specific message. It tries to free a place up, to clarify through ambiguity….You read the image very easily, but in the end, you are on your own.”
For more information on Herrera and his process, be sure to read his terrific conversation with Josiah McElheny from 2005 in Bomb. An excerpt:
The challenge is, how can an image so recognizable, like a dwarf, or a cartoon character’s foot or nose, or the red and blue specific to Snow White’s dress, have another meaning that I impose onto it? Is it possible? Can I make something so clear ambiguous? Can I uproot it? In which ways is the baggage that we bring to the new image relevant to the vivid recollections within our cultural context? I am attracted to juxtaposing invented images and readymade images without establishing explicit relations between elements.
From Herrera’s interview with Tom Friel of Bad At Sports:
Using everyday printed materials which are instantly recognizable leads the viewer directly into the image and at once a connection is established. Crashing our invented, private meanings onto a newly constructed image only adds to the impact of the original source. This undoing of linearity is attractive to me.
These works come across as strong interventions into the act of reading. Using the help of stencils, Herrera haphazardly covers up the content of every page to the point of illegibility. We are forced to consider the nonrepresentational shapes foregrounded by the contents of the book, as a kind of linguistic information whose meaning we are left to determine.