It’s been said that any canon — artistic, literary, cinematic — consumes the oxygen of subsequent generations, burning up ideas as soon as they’re uttered, turning ambition into gray ash the moment it sees the gallery light, its academic acolytes suffocating revolution when it flares. Until the canon itself is consumed, which generally takes a climactic event: Industrial Revolution, war, Great Depression — events that don’t destroy prior achievements, but remind us that contemporary context is the cradle of all great art, and discredit prior visions just enough to unleash real innovation.
Although all signs indicate that the sort of full-on blaze that clears the forest of old growth is kindled (complete globalization, the tech revolution, the Great Recession), we’re still caught in the tail end of an interstitial moment, when coping mechanisms are at play — many of them brilliant (think: Donald Judd, Karen Finley). Among the most critically successful yet risky of those survival techniques is the derivative artwork, and this month you can take in a home run and a strike (but, man, what a swing).
Jonathan Monk unveils a wicked good retouching of one-half of Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations at Artpace this week, in which the Nebraska-born artist’s black-and-white snapshots of small-town service stations, taken in 1962, are airbrushed onto fiberglass casts of hoods from the era’s highway-cruising gas guzzlers. What could easily be as dull as a drive through the old neighborhood with someone who never lived there instead has a visceral beauty that fundamentally alters the chemistry of Ruscha’s original work. As the phonetic spelling of Ruscha’s name in the title promises, we will see him in a new way: It’s not an homage, but an elegy written by Jim Harrison.
Ruscha’s original images were intentionally artless, plainly documentary (although a good eye is a good eye; the framing is poetic), but redrawn here with an artist’s airbrush that emphasizes text and blows out the whites, they’re like stills or maquettes from a film that’s trying to evoke that mythic America, where our dreams were only thwarted by our own limitations. The shiny hoods glint like windshields on a sunlit highway, and the images waver like reflections in the aerodynamic curves, giving the show a touch of bittersweet nostalgia — we’re watching an idea of us drive into the sunset. Goodby mom-and-pop shops, guilt-free consumption, unconscious excess, unhomogenized backwater colonies.
I visited the gallery while Monk and the Artpace crew were finishing hanging the show, and the artist noted that the hoods (painted by a New Jersey airbrush artist commissioned by Monk), hung so that the fronts point up, create a skyline, each hood its own building. All those classic American automobiles were a horizontal alternate universe, blasting through their rural present with a destructive, catalytic force that heralded decades of unbridaled U.S. dominance. Too bad history isn’t an upward spiral, after all.
Ruscha printed only 300 copies for the first edition of Twentysix Gasoline Stations, and he reportedly meant it to be inexpensive and accessible. Monk recalls that he first saw a copy at the library, on the shelf next to two other Ruscha books. He could check it out and take it home to study, which struck him as funny, given its simplicity: small, black-and-white images of the stations, with blunt notations, tracing the stops on his frequent roadtrips between California and Oklahoma. The day I visited Artpace, I handled a copy I can’t afford with white gloves, and it’s striking the way that Monk’s reinterpretation subtly comments on the impossibility of owning this legacy now that it’s iconic. We can’t afford the iconic lifestyle it documents, either, although we’re still flailing around for ways to reject that belated realization.
Over at Blue Star, a young artist has drawn on the tableau of Jacopo Bassano’s unruly Last Supper for a collaborative project that’s billed as an homage to the people who influence him, but pretty much reads as a celebration of self. Tiny Gallery Four is filled top to bottom with work by impresario Rex Hausmann and five “invited collaborators”: David Almaguer, Kyle Martin, Tuan Nguyen, Russell Stephenson, and Patrick Winn. It’s cluttered in a manner familiar to fans of the late, great Jason Rhoades and, closer to home, the late, lamented Danny Geisler: beer cans and found objects share space with Pollock-like abstract paintings, drawings, prints, and pink insulation studded with bluebonnets and stenciled red stars and blue Texases (my favorite thing) — all of it backdrop for Hausmann’s Last Supper: a photo of a room filled with artists and teachers, Hausmann (I think that’s him, with one of the cigars) at center. Books about and by Picasso (“Guernica”), Damien Hirst, Cézanne, Chris Burden, and the On/Off Fredericksburg Road tour are stacked near the entrance. The artworks in this installation are, fittingly, largely reminiscent of better-known work you’ve seen elsewhere (although I also liked the gold spray-painted brass knuckles/crowns on the textile-print squares).
Unlike Rhoades’s “Black Pussy” installation — the womb for and output of a series of evenings orchestrated within Rhoades’s aesthetic frame — Hausmann’s room doesn’t invite you to participate so much as admire. Hausmann is clearly a very talented artist — he can draw; he can paint; he can, judging by the self-published book I saw at Blue Star, limn just about any style or medium you can name (didn’t see video, though, now that I think about it, but perhaps no one’s suggested it yet). But as any struggling artist will tell you, technique is only the lesser half of the entry fee. What do you have to say with your talent? My guess is that no one’s asked Hausmann to show and prove.
I love maximalism and 3-D collage, but this piece falls apart for me around its central theme. Even as a non-believer, I can’t discard the key narrative of the Last Supper story: It’s a final meal before the world’s paradigm changes fundamentally, forever. Today, we carry the baggage of our predecessors; tomorrow, after the central character surrenders his life, his creative force, we get a clean slate. Depending on which version of the myth you find most compelling, one of the diners is about to commit a heinous act of betrayal, or is preparing himself for the second-most difficult role in a performance for which the reward is self-abnegation. In either version, the rest of the guests carry the weight of their charge as emissaries of a singular, rare message. The meal is a an act of commitment to a task too weighty for most humans to bear. Hausmann and his guests just look pleased with themselves. Are these the next generation’s art saviors? Clement Greenberg help us.
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