Nothing in history has saturated the world like American pop culture. For the past fifty years, American movies, television, graphics, and especially advertising have profoundly influenced the way the whole world looks.
American fine arts have had a similar global influence. But interestingly, the popular media so commonly identified with our culture is rarely a source of influence for this country's fine artists, who tend instead to follow their own highly individualistic muses. That's why the latest exhibit at the Mackey Gallery, the image-rich Repro 3, is so noteworthy: It features in-depth displays from three accomplished area artists who have been affected by pop culture.
Roland Bernier, Annalee Schorr and John Haeseler create clearly distinct works, but they're drawing from the same wellspring of inspiration: pop art of the 1960s. The artists start with found images and text taken from magazines or television and, in some cases, supplement them with images of their own. In addition, each of the three employs the photocopy machine as their main art-making tool.
That choice of medium calls to mind pop-art master Andy Warhol's observation about the accessibility of American popular culture: A Coke is a Coke no matter who you are. Everyone, after all, has equal access to both the mass media the artists take as their subject matter and their chosen method, the trusty Xerox machine. But that's not to say that anyone could do what these artists have done.
A key artistic feature of the photocopy method is the way the image disintegrates through the copying process. Blocks of color or shade begin to break up into smaller blotches, giving the false impression that the image has been handmade. So the basic nature of the photocopy method allows artists to add additional levels of meaning; impersonal images copied by a mechanical method can be translated into highly personal expressions.
In order to address some serious subjects, Bernier, Schorr and Haeseler also deal, to varying degrees, with the intersection of words and pictures. Bernier creates art about literature, Schorr's topic is television and its effect on our everyday lives, and Haeseler is concerned with the oppression of gays. Though the artists share a fondness for wit and irony, the gravity of the issues they tackle contributes to the essentially non-decorative quality of the works on display.
Bernier is the odd artist out in many ways. For the Mackey show, he has limited himself mostly to using found text. Pictorial images are incorporated only infrequently, while words are arrayed free-association style. These mixed-media pieces appear to be Bernier's final thoughts on a group of similar works from his mammoth solo show at Mackey last summer.
Two large wall panels also are reminiscent of those earlier Bernier efforts. Both consist of plywood panels that have been covered in words made of plywood cutouts. In "A Play (Much Ado About Nothing) on Words," the panels and the three-dimensional letters that make up the words have been covered with color photocopies of text. Both text and the repeated photographic image of an iridescent charcoal-colored hat appear in "Talking Thru Your Hat." In the former work, white text is seen against a black ground; in the latter, it's red against yellow. This simple approach to color contributes considerably to the visual appeal of these dense and complicated compositions, creating a delicate balance that may have been lost had Bernier opted for a more involved color scheme.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Bernier also tries his hand at sculpture. In "Talking Thru Your Hat, Too," Bernier covers five identical hats with color photocopies of articles from Art in America magazine. The hats, each a different color, have been hung in a line at eye level and adorned with white text set against grounds of blue, red, magenta, black and lime green.
The most striking of Bernier's three-dimensional pieces is "Death in Venice," in which five shovels are hung across the wall and wrapped in text from Thomas Mann's famous novella. The sculpture is somber and moving, but it also recalls the role of the Dada movement in helping to provide the foundation for contemporary pop-related art. Remember, it was Dada mentor Marcel Duchamp who in 1915 first hung a shovel on a wall and called it a work of art.
Schorr also delves into the 3-D world, sometimes incorporating ready-mades like tiny cocktail umbrellas or small stuffed chicks into her work. But she is at her best here with the mixed-media wall pieces that take up the topic of television, a subject that has occupied the artist for the last five years. In the whimsical yet intelligent "Talk, Talk, Talk," Schorr lays out a grid of images from TV talk shows, each of which has a text trailer running below it. Schorr sat in front of the television, waited for the "right" video image to appear and then photographed it; the photos themselves were then photocopied. The talking heads in the shots include Erica ("a fifteen-year-old who has had over 300 one-night stands"), Rocky ("a married transsexual") and Ren ("nude butler").
By far, the best of Schorr's new works are a pair of billboard-sized wall pieces, "The Victor" and "Remotely Controlled Oklahoma." These two magnificent and powerful efforts take as their topics the two most important television stories of the last year. "The Victor" pairs an enlargement of a Victor brand rat trap--which has been sprung--with a giant blowup of O.J. Simpson's police booking photo. In "Remotely Controlled Oklahoma," a giant TV remote-control unit is paired with an enlargement of an injured federal worker. The point of Schorr's in-your-face approach: Both bombs and television sets are controlled by remote.
Even more in our faces, given their roots in pornography rather than television, are the mixed-media pieces from John Haeseler's "Pink Triangle Series." The series' title comes from the Nazi symbol used to identify gays in World War II concentration camps, and the artist has supplemented it with portraits of gay couples and kissing sailors. Haeseler is angry, and if viewers have any doubt about it, they need only notice that he has also included pictures of friends and fellow artists who have died from AIDS, including Paul Knope, Stan Lund and, notably, Wes Kennedy.
Kennedy, who died in 1993, is a lightning rod for homophobia- and AIDS-related issues in the local art world, where work in which he is the subject abounds. And Haeseler's "Wes Kennedy" is dark and haunting. The artist has copied the image of Kennedy so many times, it has arrived at an advanced state of disintegration that directly reflects the state of Kennedy's health when Haeseler took the photograph.
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Many of the "Pink Triangle Series" works appear at first to be totally abstract. But as a closer look will reveal, that's not the case. Typically, a layer of photocopied images of hardcore pornography has been laid down and then almost totally obscured by a thin, translucent coat of gold paint. Most, though not all, of the works feature a pink triangle floating against the gold field. In a piece like "M'Angle," a scene of a young man masturbating can only be seen when the work is viewed from the side. Straight on, it looks like a geometric abstraction. Haeseler uses the same formula in "D'Angle (Bone Appetite)" in which the subject is male-to-male oral sex.
The Amendment 2 debate has brought gay issues to the forefront of local politics, so it's interesting to notice how in the art world it's the topic that dares not speak its name. Even the gallery is squeamish about the gay content of Haeseler's pieces; the press release for Repro 3 describes the "Pink Triangle Series" work as "mainly pink and gold" and points out that Haeseler both "reveals and hides" his topic--while neglecting to say what that topic is.
Raising difficult political issues is one of the things that's easy to do while working in a neo-pop style. That's why art of this kind is rarely seen in either public or corporate collections: It has too much to say. Though Bernier's and Schorr's intentions are ambiguous enough to lead a viewer through multiple levels of interpretation, no one could miss Haeseler's point--except, perhaps, the author of Mackey's press release.