As I’m sitting in the dark and cold, writing in longhand, one thing that becomes obvious is that American popular culture would be less popular without technologies we take for granted, like electricity. Forget rice. If the United States really wants the Third World to buy into Western civilization, we should first consider stringing power lines across Afghanistan and providing TVs and computers to the entire population. And cable, lest Afghani warlords enter our space/time continuum without MTV, ESPN or Sex in the City and be unhip and thus lesser. Ideally, democracy provides everything to everyone, including the right to vote, the right to purchase “New and Improved!” icons of consumerism and the right to watch Maury Povich descend lower and lower into the trough of daytime network television.
Our economically and politically lucrative culture is a never-ending cycle of icons made popular by the populace, with the populace in turn made ever more susceptible to popular icons by the media’s use of cultural iconography. The Pop Art movement that began in the 1950s resulted from an intense awareness of postwar consumerism, technology and the media. A handful of British artists became enthralled with the symbols and signs (literal and figurative) of American culture and formed the Independent Group at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London to discuss and depict what was happening across the Atlantic. Likewise, American artists such as Robert Rauschenberg undertook their own visual investigations from inside the milieu. Eventually, Andy Warhol, who had worked as a commercial artist and intimately understood commercial techniques, brought Pop Art to its rightful place alongside — and inside — the mainstream.
Since then, advancing technologies have given the media exponentially greater range and speed. When the people/culture symbiosis is operating best — or worst, depending on one’s perspective — there’s the potential for a cycle spinning out of control, a consumer culture equivalent to a nuclear meltdown. The danger is both terrifying and fascinating to those who are able to distance themselves far enough from the hazard site to get a clear view. Leave it to artists to make a picture of the explosion. And leave it to the sagacious Dirt Gallery to exhibit the pictures.
By Popular Demand: “Art for the Masses” displays works by young artists who celebrate and vilify mass culture. Curated by Leo Esquivel, the show includes art by Jay Ariaz, Mike Erickson, Esquivel, Corey Goring, Eric Grimes, Seth Johnson, Jeremy Jones, Max Key, Jay Norton, Brian Reeves, Jeremy Scheuch and Erin Zona.
One of the goals of the Pop movement is to bridge the gap between high and low art, between highbrow and middlebrow, by using familiar symbols and artistic techniques of popular culture. (It is assumed, reasonably, that lowbrows will never enter a gallery or read an art magazine or book.) The results are often hilarious parodies of America’s rankest kitsch that simultaneously question American values.
Max Key’s sofa-sized painting, “Balloon for Weekend Lovers,” appears to have appropriated painting techniques used by the late Bob Ross, PBS’s way-mellow host of The Joy of Painting. Ross, who epitomized America’s do-it-yourself/fast-food/can-do! attitude toward everything, including art, soared to cult status among art students and the intelligentsia primarily because he was so sincere and his paintings were so awful that the show was mesmerizingly funny. Key’s painting contains all of the Rossian elements — wispy trees, placid water and soaring snowcapped mountains — but to its surface he has grafted a collage of tiny cutouts of real people frolicking among the painted flora. The contrast between the “real” illusion and the fake illusion, framed in the pink-brown carpet ubiquitous in tasteless homes, addresses the varying levels of artifice in our lives and how much we accept without question. That includes the nature of art itself.
Pop Art defies — and defiles — the art-literate’s concept of what art is or isn’t. Often, the only clue that a work is high or low art is where it hangs. If Seth Johnson’s “Everyone Has a Belly Button” were hanging on the wall of a teenage boy’s bedroom, the viewer would conclude that the artist idolized Ozzy Osbourne (and his tattoos) as only a teen-age boy can. The pencil drawings of Osbourne and his family exude that not-quite-proficient technique of the novice artist, and the tattoos painted above the drawings look like those doodled in a school notebook by a Goth fan. But the trio of drawings on a gallery wall begs the viewer to consider Osbourne (and his tattoos) as symbolic of an aspect of popular culture that is mostly pretense, especially with Osbourne now appearing on a reality TV show as the dad who won’t let his daughter get a tattoo.
Similarly, if Erin Zona’s “The Texas Trilogy” were hanging on the wall of a suburban family room, the viewer might figure Gramps and Grams picked it up at an Interstate truck stop during one of their summer RV trips. Well, maybe not. Zona’s primitive hand-embroidered Texas landscape floats in a Texas-sized and Texas-shaped wood frame and is replete with icons of a sunburst, a pink cross, a rainbow and a couple of ponies. Tacky, but ordinary — except for the “Titty Forever” stitched in large pink script in the middle of the sunburst. In a gallery, it’s hard not to snicker and consider the myriad implications, especially with a Texan as president.
By Popular Demand covers a range of influences, from Esquivel’s painting “Portrait with Tattoo,” inspired by the silly TV show Fantasy Island, to Reeves’ Wal-Martesque “product” display titled “Electronic Make Your Own Master Kit and Templates,” to Ariaz’s celebrity photo knock-offs, to name a few.
Although the medium of Pop Art may be familiar to the real middle culture, its message will likely remain foreign, for the vast majority really does love its MTV and therefore won’t see the irony. Too bad. These seriously laughable artworks prove once again that American technology doesn’t necessarily lead to American good taste.