Beep Beep Gallery’s wryly titled Pangea: World-Breaking Artwork for the End of Days 2012 is the latest in their annual series of January exhibitions, offering what they describe as “promising artists who are showing with us for the first time.” Pangea (also the title of a work in the exhibition by Lance Turner) is geology’s name for the primal, unified landmass, which has since broken into today’s separate continents by the subterranean drift of the earth’s tectonic plates; as this apocalyptic year of 2012 progresses, the work brought together in this combined seven-artist show will undergo its own continental drift, and the meaning of each individual artistic practice will become more apparent.
As it is, it’s hard to believe that the only limits placed on the participants was that they present “brand new work that pursues new directions for them as artists.” The theme of original unity and subsequent dispersion is dealt with directly by at least four of the artists in ways that almost imply a collaborative effort, though each pursues the topic in a dramatically different style.
Nathan Sharratt’s twenty-first-century update of 1980s text-based postmodern irony seemingly makes him the odd man out in this exhibition, except insofar as his quotations reproduced in stainless-steel plaques reveal the underlying patterns of contemporary media and the kinds of condensed confessions we have come to expect as the headlines on tabloids or the crawl on daytime TV shows. The titles generally (but not always) replicate the text, under the prefatory category of “True Story”: True Story: I Did Not Get Signed To A Major Label. Twice.; True Story: I Lost It At 13.; True Story: Jack Bauer Gave Me A Lap Dance For My 30th Birthday.
Sun Hong’s botanical abstractions are ink-on-paper drawings that link to one another in more than one direction, so that their various arrangements indeed have No End and No Beginning, as her title puts it. Their rhizomatic proliferation could be extended indefinitely as well as reassembled to reveal new patterns.
Lance Turner, following a line of logic we associate with a variety of artists over the past two decades, puts it all together while keeping it all apart by juxtaposing a wildly varying number of styles of abstraction and representation in painting, from loosely rendered decorative patterns to a single image (of a young woman aiming a gun) that might ultimately derive from the panels of comic-book illustration or from the venerable example of preliminary sketches for larger paintings.
Kelly Cloninger allows her earlier Day-Glo pattern-and-decoration flowerets to morph into sensuous images of exuberant females immersed in masses of Day-Glo confetti. The painted images of confetti in turn become literalized in piles of the actual stuff scattered on the floor beneath the artwork.
Chris Parry’s black-and-white works on paper are a sort of goth-cum-tattoo-art mélange of skulls, snakes, Mardi Gras beads, and multi-armed allegorical figures robed like the mourning women on nineteenth-century tomb sculpture. Some of the imagery comes straight from the Symbolist Era of the Czech Decadence, although it has passed through some intermediary forms of art along the way from 1890.
Sean Abrahams presents a set of drawings that mostly turn the horror vacui of Tibetan art into the secular carnival of present-day popular media: smiley-face icons blend into friendly smiling skulls and floral-wallpaper patterns, and although the landscapes are filled with houses seen from the perspective of the Buddha palaces of mandalas, these are anything but dwelling places for sacred figures.
Chelsea Raflo returns us to contemporary media studies with her brilliantly rendered Untitled Stills from a Future Film. Though the title recalls Cindy Sherman, the photo-cutout dioramas are more like updates of Joseph Cornell (or of the cigar-box dioramas children across America once assembled in Vacation Bible School), combined with the storyboards used to map out scenes in moviemaking. The noir narrative runs in reverse if the four boxes are viewed left to right, leaving us to wonder whether this is a series of successive flashbacks or just a test of our ability to put narrative together from visually loaded fragments seen out of sequence.
The exhibition comes without supporting materials—no artist statements here, or even biographical sketches of the contributors—and I was left with the realization of why we need an under-30 Atlanta version of Walter Benjamin.
“Huh?” you may ask. So I will tell you.
Benjamin was an incessantly curious experimenter who alarmed his Frankfurt School superiors by combining whatever seemingly contradictory forms of analysis might shed light on the origins and meaning of both high art and popular culture, forms that few had previously considered in the same body of thought. He pondered the meaning of Charles Baudelaire as a poet of the era of High Capitalism; he also pondered the meaning of the emergence of Mickey Mouse as a fictional figure, and looked critically at how and why store windows in the arcades of Paris were arranged. He wrote about German tragic drama, and about children’s toys.
Today we have academic departments that at least think they do all this, but we don’t have the kind of insider analysis that would allow me as a working critic to make sense of the seven artists whose work I have just summarized. I presume that these works of art stem from entire forms of popular culture that these artists and their contemporaries have known intimately from childhood onwards, just as Walter Benjamin and his readers knew the sources of the topics he recombined in his innovative forms of analysis.
Despite anthologies and even museum shows paying homage to the styles of art enshrined in Tokion and Juxtapoz, we still have no analytical categories that sort out adequately what are clearly several independent aesthetic currents lumped together under the art-movement category “lowbrow.” More generally, artworks deriving from comic books, tattooing, graffiti, video games, et cetera suffer from a lack of art-historical categorization made worse by the critics’ lack of familiarity with the popular media themselves.
So we need somebody who will take whatever analytical tools might be needed from the academic disciplines of history, psychology, and anthropology, and combine them with personal knowledge of what growing up with specific forms of popular culture does to the heads of the artists and audiences who consumed those forms and continue to consume them.
Such a critic could produce an intelligent analysis of the works of these artists and what they have to do with the question of where all of us are going in this (metaphorically and literally apocalyptic) year of 2012.
I have deliberately made reference to things that almost certainly did not influence the artists I’ve discussed—though they may have influenced the shape of their influences—in order to make clear how much we need a critic attuned to the myriad pop-cultural artifacts, phenomena, and experiences that have worked their way into the imaginations of contemporary artists. Though they are by no means the most complex example, tattoos are deserving of independent exploration—worthy of a critic who grew up in the quarter-century since the world at large realized that tattoos had turned into a hip but serious art form, a critic who also knows the history of how tattoo artists turned the genre into something more art-historically informed than it was in the 1940s. This critic should also know not only what visual sources inspired the new tattoo artists, but a bit about the uses of latter-day tattooing as an ironic riposte to the Modernist sneer, circa 1900, that frou-frou decoration in high-end design was as disreputable as the tattoos worn only by the lower and criminal classes (hence, too, the 1970s et sequentia revival of outright floridity in art and design as an act of aesthetic resistance that parallels the freshly reinvented art of tattooing). But most importantly, this historically-informed critic should be of an age to know these genres from decades of direct experience, experience that then can be adapted to theoretical purposes.
Then this as-yet-imaginary critic might be able to write a genuinely informed review of Pangea. For the aforementioned reasons, I am not that critic.
Pangea: World-Breaking Artwork for the End of Days 2012 will remain up at Beep Beep Gallery through Saturday, January 28, 2012. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 6PM.