The following essay is intended as an introductory companion piece to ‘American Power’, my contribution to ‘Young Curators, New Ideas IV’, which this year is being held at the Meulensteen Gallery in New York City.
‘Young Curators, New Ideas IV’ has been co-ordinated by Independent Curator Amani Olu. The exhibition is open to the public until August 24th 2012.
For the press release with a list of all the show’s participants click here. Reviews and credits can be found at the end of the essay.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been perceived as having a virtual monopoly over the governing of global affairs, though its means of achieving this have been anything but monolithic. Whereas U.S. policy changes and adapts, the popular imagery of America remains pervasive and enduring. It is the prop by which American values are held in place and disseminated. America’s soft power is pop music, Hollywood, sports, cowboys, rock and roll, products, celebrities and cityscapes.
This exhibition does not aim to provide a rigorously historical or political analysis of America’s power as a nation. An art exhibition is not best suited to achieve such an aim. It is however, the ideal setting in which to contemplate how power is communicated, envisaged and understood. American Power presents two contemporary artists and one filmmaker for whom the understanding of power is key to their working practice. All three appropriate the imagery and language of newspapers, magazines, film and advertising and recontextualize it in an attempt to expose inherent ideologies and cultural values. They continue to do this at a time during which the global status of America is in flux.
On display in the gallery are two large paintings by American artist Jerry Kearns, Repo Man (1984) and Mortgage (2012), the artist’s response to the foreclosure crisis.
Works by British artist Darren Coffield include two silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant, as well as paintings of U.S. icons Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Andy Warhol and Christopher Reeve as Superman centered around a contemporary vanitas, entitled Not I (2010).
Screened throughout the day is It Felt Like A Kiss (2009) directed by Bafta-award winning filmmaker, Adam Curtis. Through the use of archive footage, music and on screen titles, the film captures the years, specifically 1958 to 1967, during which America’s post-war certainties were beginning to unravel. Segments are devoted to the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the counter culture of the 1960s.
Curtis is renowned for his documentary films in which he typically traces the influence, digressions and impact of particular philosophical and political ideas through recent history. It Felt Like A Kiss dispenses with the most familiar aspects of his documentary filmmaking style. Instead of his trademark voiceover and interviews, there is a diverse soundtrack of classic American tracks (including songs by Roy Orbison, Solomon Burke, Bob Dylan, Peggy Lee, Tina Turner, and the Velvet Underground) undulating in between snippets of advertisements, news, documentary footage, and ambient sound. Curtis’ narrative is limited to starkly composed screen titles.
In short, It Felt Like A Kiss is the closest thing that Curtis has made to an art-house film. It is an all engrossing audio-visual experience in which Curtis (and indeed the viewer) rapidly builds connections between disperate pieces of footage. In 2009, Curtis teamed up with the theatre production company Punchdrunk to stage an interactive screening of the film at the Manchester International Festival. In order to reach the screening itself, vistors first had to navigate a series of thematically designed rooms and corridoors, prepping them for the film’s dissection of the American dream.
The film’s credit sequence (above) suggests that Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald and Enos the Chimp (the first chimpanzee launched into orbit) are all somehow connected, a notion that initially seems absurd. But as the film progresses, the lives of these individuals are shown to have fleetingly touched one another in a series of metaphoric and literal ways. For instance, in one sequence we learn that Osama Bin Laden’s favourite television show as a child was Bonanza and that the Manson family set up a commune on the show’s disused set. Doris Day’s son, the musician Terry Melcher, later met Charles Manson and offered to produce his songs, one of which, we are told, was entitled ‘Pretty Girl Cease to Exist’. Curtis visually exploits such uncanny connections to full effect by locating and contrasting serendipitous pieces of footage that brings the film’s narrative alive.
Curtis’ emphasis on these resonant connections is intended to disrupt our casual conceptualizing of history. Rather than understanding history as a series of linear events punctuated by key individuals at key moments (casually referred to as the ‘great man’ theory of history), the film forces us to accept that history is infinitely more complex and that our ordering of it (including Curtis’) is really our own way of assuring ourselves of any purposefulness or direction that we can read into it. As the film sardonically puts it:
Every day thousands of things happened to thousands of people. Some seemed to be significant and others did not.
All of Curtis’ films straddle a fine paradox, for whilst his documentaries aim to legitimize a particular reading of history (i.e. his own), he similuateonsly affirms that all of us effectively construct and impose our own understanding of history ourselves. As Tim Adams of The Observer newspaper eloquently surmised, ‘If there has been a theme in Curtis’s work…it has been to look at how different elites have tried to impose an ideology on their times, and the tragi-comic consequences of those attempts’.
In the case of It Felt Like A Kiss, the notion of what constitutes individuality, is continually dissected. The film’s concludes that our understanding of individuality has become narrow and stifling. It is comprehended only within the terms of free market Capitalism, fulfilling our own personal desires, and the ability to choose as consumers. Against the backdrop of a teenage girl dancing in the dark, Curtis’ titles read:
The computers that controlled the Cold War and guided the rockets to the Moon were put to a new use. They started to analyse the credit data of all Americans…so that in the future everyone could be lent money…
Recently, Curtis has become much more vocal in his critique of our current narrow-minded individualism, despite the fact that his documentaries have previously targeted the dangerous allure and simplification of grand ideologies and schemes. In an interview with the Guardian’s Katherine Viner, Curtis remarked:
‘There’s no one like, say, Tolstoy, who wrote of both man in his world and the architecture of his world. Now there is no context, just the feelings of one person… Because now that there’s nothing more important than you, how can you ever lose yourself in a grander idea? We’re frightened of eccentricity, of loneliness. Individualism just wants to keep the machine stable, leads to a static world and a powerless world’.
Much like Curtis’ film editing, Jerry Kearns’ paintings conflate and fuse various points in time and space. Each canvas is a universe onto itself, where only isolated fragments are familiar to us. The presence of Ronald Reagan in Repo Man immediatelysituates the painting in the 1980s as does the hammer and sickle earring worn by the zombie. Kearns has chosen to render the scene as an ambigious and abstracted nightmare. Dollar bills are strewn among the floor and the seated figure appears to be bleeding a black substance. Could it be ink, or perhaps oil? What is the meaning of the Santa Claus figure? The ‘tick tocks’ rendered in reverse clearly suggests a regression, but of what exactly? There is an uncanny parallel between Reagan’s and the Soviet zombie’s smiles. Should we take this to signify an equating of these two world powers, and if so how can they be equated? Kearns has described himself as an ‘ambiguous didactic’. At a glance, the viewer can broadly situate the socio-political perspective of the work, but the composition is rendered so as to be as pregnant and interpretive as possible.
This approach is entirely fitting with Kearns’ choice of source material, the media. Images from advertising, films, comic books and television are reappropriated and made into something new. To force an exact narrative upon the finished canvas would constitute a denial of the diverse origins, context and meanings of those various sources. Kearns’ key observation is that the imagery with which we are surrounded every day is saturated with varying (and often conflicting) ideology. Kearns’ insistence on ambiguity serves as a concrete reminder of this, and his point is directly accentuated by the viewers’ own interpretative efforts. Indeed, despite the discernable logic of Kearns’ overall compositions, each constituent component resonates in isolation as much as it does as part of a whole.
‘Ronald Reagan was our Repo-Man. I felt like the 1950s returned in cowboy Reagan during the 1980s. Under his flag, the American right moved to destroy the legacy of the counter cultural movements’.
To underline this point, Kearns appropriates imagery from 1950s EC (Entertaining Comics) cartoons whose Publisher, William Gaines, was called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The imagery of such serials as ‘The Crypt’, ‘Haunt’ and ‘Horror’ were deemed by some as anti-American. More saliently, the story lines and rendering of the characters can be understood to have expressed the anxieties of the age, in particular racial tensions, sexual politics and the Cold War. Repo Man depicts a short-circuited age, where the tensions of the 1950s remain. These decade old comic book characters are used by Kearns as conduits for ever present concerns.
The effect is analogous to way Curtis uses select footage of Doris Day and Rock Hudson in order to highlight the discrepancy between the ideal (a Hollywood fantasy) and the real. It Felt Like A Kiss uses scenes from Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1960) in which Rock Hudson’s character flirts with Doris Day. Curtis’ on screen titles observe that in reality Hudson was a closeted homosexual who married his wife to order to hide his sexuality. The irony of these scenes deflates the apparent freedom of the American Dream, holding it accountable for its actual shortcomings. The film continues to do this in segments devoted to the role of women and African Americans, preempted by the use of Ruth Brown’s song ‘Oh What A Dream’ (which includes the lyric, ‘so disappointed, I laid back down. Oh what a dream…I had last night’) at the start of the film. Both Curtis and Kearns are keenly concerned with the pervasiveness of media imagery and the attitudes that they can inspire and enforce.
Kearns’ latest painting, Mortgage, is his response to the foreclosure crisis. The word ‘Mortgage’ makes a simple but effective title, the etymology of the word literally being ‘death pledge’. An archetypal American home, rendered in three dimensions, is reduced to a flat cut out by the stars shinning directly through its windows. Here, the home, arguably the most important of material possessions, is at its most vulnerable. Attempting to protect it (or perhaps even invade it) is the figure of Christ, dressed as a Cowboy, brandishing a pistol and accompanied by a faithful dog. Though humoursly absurd, the painting retains a sinister edge. We can see that two intruders are present given the shadows depicted on the lawn, but they lack physical presence. Christ himself looks desperately to the skies, the dog gazes in the distance, ears erect. It is clear that neither can actually see these figures approaching. The work embodies our very fear of economic processes. We may be surrounded by bank branches, bills and cash, but for the majority of people, our understanding of the overall mechanisms governing the global economic system remain opaque at best. The painting captures our frustration, desperation and inertia in dealing with the present economic crisis whilst also prompting questions about how economic power operates.
As Kearns’ compositions and Curtis’ films demonstrate, we are all drawn towards narrative and where there is none, we will attempt to create it ourselves. It is the most effective prop by which we can comfort ourselves with a feeling of completeness and purposefulness. After all, narrative itself has a structure and a linear order, a beginning, middle and end. Curtis acknowledges the power of narrative in almost all of his documentary films, many of which start with the phrase ‘this is a story about how…’. Our fondness for narrative accounts for the enduring popularity of ‘great man’ histories and the classic myths, which distill hugely complex issues. There is a modern phenomenon that offers a similar comfort. It is the celebrity.
The omnipresence of a celebrity is in itself suggestive of their importance and power, even when both may actually be in short supply. Every day we are surrounded by familiar faces who have been deemed significant. We are comforted not only by the familiarity and ordering of these presences, but also the faint suggestion that we too could, one day, be deemed as significant as these figures. It used to be that you were famous for something, a particular attribute, profession or skill. Now individuals can be famous for nothing. Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, reality television stars. All are famous for being famous. The retort that such individuals have earned such status because of their demonstrated business and publicity nous is in itself a highly seditious and hollow exercise. Celebrity is an industry founded on fostering exclusion to create exclusivity. As much as it can be comforting in its familiarity and aspirational value, when in excess, it essentially debases human interaction.
This recent incarnation of celebrity is primarily associated with America, where as the familiar adage goes, ‘anyone can make it’. It is therefore unsurprising that the majority of Darren Coffield’s distorted portraits are of famous U.S. icons. However, most of Coffield’s chosen subjects are of earlier twentieth century figures. We can therefore surmise that his interest lies in the orgins and early formation of today’s celebrity as well as with portraiture itself.
Despte their distorton, Coffield’s figures remain recognizable, such is their iconic status. The portraits underline the fact that most of our communication is non-verbal. Indeed, the reason that many viewers find the portraits intially unsettling is because they disrupt the psychological process of reading the face, an inherent and unconscious part of our everyday interactions. Coffield’s paintings are a bold retort to the argument that painted portraiture is a virtually spent medium in our age of mass production and instant imagery.
Whilst Coffield and Kearns share a Pop sensibility, their working processes couldn’t be more opposed. Coffield’s scale suits the engagement with his subjects whereas Kearns’ compositions intentionally refer to the grand scale, ambition and narrative of classic history painting (established as the most revered of subjects in the eighteenth century). Given that Kearns’ paintings are self conscious collages of media imagery, his painting technique is appropriately highly refined, each register or source of imagery meticuoulsy rendered as it would appear in print (be it a fashion advertisement or a cartoon strip character). In comparison, Coffield’s paintings are rapidly produced and exhibit a sketchlike quality, his painting method a reflection of the rapidity with which we process the face.
Some of the portraits are rendered as shadowy silhouettes upon a single palette background (for instance Night & Day), whereas others are fully fleshed. In almost all of the paintings, viewers can glimpse minute patches of unpainted canvas. These gaps serve as Coffield’s declaration of the artifiace of portraiture. These icons are ‘true untruths’, idealized images of manicured self presentation. Celebrity harnesses the notion of intimate familarity with a subject when no such contact or connection exsists. This is at the heart of its power and hold over our imaginations. In interviews, Coffield has described the portraits as exhibiting an Orwellian ‘double-think’, that is to say that they exhibit the existance of contary beliefs and opinions simultaenously. For example, you may be familiar with Cary Grant’s films well and thus can recognize him easily. Though you have an idea of what Grant was like as a person, you do not know him at all. You have been presented less with a personality, and more with a aspirational self-presentation (in short, a lifestyle). Here we return full swing to Curtis’ concerns regarding our definition of individuality and the trappings of its marketability.
The purpose of this essay has not only been to introduce the work of these three individuals but to demonstrate how their works compliment one another. A number of common threads can be articulated through the examination of their work. The power of narrative and symbols, the operations of power, and the mechanisms of fame are just some examples. It isn’t just that their subject matter correlates (for instance, Rock Hudson, so prevalent throughout Curtis’ film, is also the subject of one of Coffield’s portraits), nor that the works echo one another in a formalist sense, rather all three can be said to share similar socio-artistic concerns. Though Curtis does not consider himself an artist, his documentaries have inspired a number of contemporary artists. His inclusion in this exhibition felt completely natural. Both Curtis and Kearns utilize the power of juxtaposition, the former through montage and the latter on canvas. Our current obsession with celebrity, the embodiment of unfettered and fetishized individuality that Coffield captures so eloquently, is also of concern to Kearns and Curtis. The ingenuity of both Coffield’s and Kearns’ work is that their paintings address art historical concepts whilst simultaneously engaging current issues. Though the symbols of America’s power may seem simple, they are anything but. As I hope this exhibition has demonstrated, the real and the ideal are not without contradiction, and the ideal is never apolitical nor ideologically unbound.
Darren Coffield, Adam Curtis and Jerry Kearns Amani Olu and Eric Gleason Mia Curran Jennifer Hoffman-Williamson, Shawn Lefevre, Thomas Keelan Lucy Kelsall at the BBC Steph Allen at Punchdrunk and Amanda Tiller
DeShawn Dumas, A Curation of Curators: Young Curators, New Ideas at Meulensteen, Artcritical.com
Chloe Wyma, Bright Young Things: Who to Watch in Amani Olu’s “Young Curators, New Ideas” Showcase at Meulensteen, Artinfo.com
Amelia Reynolds, Young Curators, New Ideas IV, Whitewall
Jamel Robinson, Best of Show: Young Curators, New Ideas IV, The Inkwell
Malcolm Harris, Declared Cool: Young Curators, New Ideas IV, The Huffington Post
Kyle Fitzpatrick, LAIY In NYC Diary: Day Eight, Nine, And Ten, LA I’m Yours
Charlie Schultz, Young Curators/New Ideas IV, Artslant