Art: Wednesday, January 9, 2003
Warhol’s Factory Drones

Believe it or not, some artists still think pop art has something to say.


There once was a time when American artists and their European counterparts were overwhelmed by mass media and advertising and needed to make sense of it all.

Those days are lonnnng gone.

Art in which overt references to consumer culture figure prominently is now a mere splinter of what was probably a pretty sturdy sledgehammer, for consumer culture becomes us, ever a globe-trotting, interconnected people. And to all those bygone artists who thought they were awakening the rabble to the “evils” of over-the-counter consumption by appropriating advertising conceits and company logos — was it worth it? Probably not: The average American is as dumb now as she was then. She wears silly clothes and considers Jackass high comedy. The message to artists today is: We need something more than a sound bite or sly reference. We need art. It’s a shame that only some artists are answering the call. Most, like a few who are showing in town currently, appear to be totally deaf.

Bill Barminski is one of them. (Hel-lo!) Based on his exhibit at Gallery 5017, his way with a paintbrush is deft while his commitment to any sort of aesthetic conviction is suspect. Images of Holiday Inn marquees and Borden’s Elsie the Cow make frequent appearances in Barminskiland. While clearly nostalgic for the ’50s, Barminski keeps his easel firmly planted in the 1960s, making anti-art of the kind that’s taught in today’s places of higher education. (Remember, there used to be a rift between what MFA profs taught and what MFA students wanted to learn — not anymore, unfortunately.) A common Barminski is a smallish, flat piece of wood, divided by paint into neat squares, where advertising icons, solid and chipped panels of wonderfully drab colors, and what appear to be brilliant linoleum floor patterns share space but don’t overlap. Looking at one of these Barminskis is like looking at a bizarro tic-tac-toe board, where instead of X’s and O’s you have Elsies, complete washes of light blues, tired greens, and burned-out oranges, and geometric shapes. The intermingling of these colors and shapes makes for an inviting art-viewing experience. It’s only when you realize that this photorealist is winking heavily enough to create a soft breeze that the spell is shattered.

“Speaking” in the visual vernacular of the common man is what a lot of artists feel they must do to compete with mass media and the internet. Most gallerygoers, however, are interested in art because they want to get away from the simplistic clutter — these folks want something more substantial, less ephemeral. When an art lover walks into a museum or gallery, she should at least be extended the courtesy of seeing something she hasn’t seen before. Whatever happened to originality? Whatever happened to elbow grease?

Now don’t confuse elbow grease with what’s behind the work on view at Gallery 414. Bruce Campbell’s cute ink recreations of newspaper copy are only a few steps removed from what a really industrious high-school art student might have pulled off had she had the time. The artist doesn’t concern himself with Xeroxing the newspaper exactly: Some of the reconstructions of the news photos are merely sketches, not heavy photorealist representations, and most of the letters in the verbiage don’t resemble New Times Roman as much as they look like the handiwork of someone with relatively neat penmanship. This art, like a lot of photorealist song-and-dance, is an attempt to disorient the viewer. If only we were being tricked into looking at something interesting. Newspapers? (Yawn!) Instead, Campbell’s left picking up the tab that Andy Warhol skipped out on.

Good ol’ Andy Warhol. You know those silkscreens of famous folk and, alternately, cultural icons really upset wheelers and dealers, who promptly began sweating over the fact that anti-art wasn’t something anyone with a brain in her head would shell out 50 cents for. Warhol, Rauschenberg, Hockney, Lichtenstein — they arrived at the perfect time to get the cognoscenti wondering whether or not art was anything that could be neatly framed and neatly marketed as art. Time has proven that while art can be, per Duchamp’s famous quip, anything an artist points her finger at, it can also be something that some collector or some curator, somewhere, will want to buy or receive. (BTW: Duchamp’s urinal, a.k.a. “Fountain,” belongs to the Indiana University Art Museum.) Why anyone today other than a really “progressive” (read: misguided) curator would want anything to do with, say, Barbara Kruger’s condescending faux-print advertisements or Andrea Zittel’s stupid trailers mystifies me.

At least Steve Kaufman knows his audience: tacky bar owners and intellectually challenged frat boys. His “artist-enhanced” silk screens of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and the Rat Pack are so far out of style they couldn’t catch the T back in, but you know Joe Public eats this shit up. Kaufman’s work occupies a small wall at the Milan Gallery; he’s been showing there since late summer and doing well. Who knows? It only took about 10 years for Fort Worth to catch the martini fad: Maybe Kaufman and the Milan are on to something?

I know, you’re probably thinking: “Hey, artists have been mining consumer culture forever. Why is it so disturbing now?” Well, the truth is that while even impressionists took some visual cues from mass-produced consumer goods, no group of artists ever faced a media machine like the one that exists today. Our contemporary artists had a choice: Embrace consumer culture or reject it. Most embraced it — being consumers was the one thing that united all of us Americans, and artists, swept up in the multiculturalism movement of the latter half of last century, were going to do the right thing — and all we’re left with now are echoes of something that once mattered.

The past should always have a place in the contemporary avant-garde, just not at the head of the table.

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