From now through September 12, upon entering the gallery Luxembourg & Dayan, which is housed in a townhouse on the Upper East Side, you will see a series of colorful paintings based on patterns of lace. Deeply beautiful, the paintings work well in the posh, pristine interior — they seem to fit their surroundings. On the wall just beyond them, you’ll see the title of the exhibition you’re viewing, which may not be quite what you expected, given all the abstraction and color and lace: Mark Flood: The Hateful Years.
Mark Flood is a Houston, Texas–based artist who spent most of his career toiling away in relative obscurity, earning himself the sort of backhanded compliment of being an “artist’s artist,” which meant that lots of people appreciated his work, but not many of them with any real money (sorry, artists). That all changed with the Lace paintings, which Flood began making in 1999. As he recently told the New York Times:
My life changed dramatically. I no longer needed some art professional standing there saying, “This is good because of Jasper Johns, because of Duchamp,” because someone was coming up to me saying: “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Here’s $5,000.” And then I quit my job.
And yet, as Flood told it at the press preview for the Luxembourg & Dayan show last week, the Lace paintings are, in fact, hateful, or at least, in his words, have “hateful dimensions.” Inspired by a comment the artist read by critic Dave Hickey, Flood saw them initially as a “fuck you” to the art bureaucracy — “‘Fuck you’ is a quality I love in art,” he went on to say — which is so over beautiful things. And from the sounds of it, the trick worked: the Lace paintings earned him enough money to live as an artist, which freed him from the need for acceptance from the art establishment. And then acceptance came anyway: he’s now represented by galleries in New York and Berlin, and the entire Luxembourg & Dayan townhouse is currently given over to his work.
With the exception of the Lace paintings, however, which are all new, the show is a retrospective of Flood’s art from the 1980s — a way for the establishment to make up for lost time. Although the Lace paintings may be hateful in their own special way, they are also stunning. The art on the other four flours of the townhouse is not. This is not at all a bad thing, but here the work is much truer to the exhibition’s title, and to Flood’s clearly antiestablishment spirit. Spray-painted and acrylic text paintings instruct the viewer to “Masturbate Often”; pop culture collages distort the features and faces of teen idols; the subjects of found thrift-store portraits become monster-like creatures with black dots or blacked-out faces; advertising on products is “muted” and painted out; even porn gets the Flood treatment, with the artist collaging faces and different, more innocent body parts onto and around penises and vaginas.
But the idea that Flood is “hateful” needs qualifying: in fact, he seems to have an intense love-hate relationship with American culture. His work doesn’t come across quite so much hateful as deeply and disturbing conflicted. It’s emotional bound-up. Flood spent years wrestling with pop culture, images, advertising and corporations — the same concerns that dominated the work of many artists in the 1980s, foremost among the Pictures generation. But while the latter have always seemed to critique from the outside — with “a cold, detached gaze,” according to the show’s curator, Alison Gingeras — Flood works from the inside. He cares about advertising and pop culture because those are the visual forms that dominate the world he’s always lived in.
Although Houston has the Menil Collection (where Flood worked as a museum assistant), it’s not an art mecca like New York or London. “In Houston, if you’re as into art as I am, you labor to conceal it,” Flood said at the preview, only half-jokingly. He followed that up by calling art “a shameful habit that needs to be justified.” Among Flood’s other day jobs were video clerk, teacher’s assistant and file clerk at Texaco. He actually used Texaco company letterhead — working quite literally from the inside — as the basis for some of his collages, in which he often scrambled and subverted corporate advertisements to highlight their insidious, Big Brother–like quality.
The best part of the Luxembourg & Dayan show is undoubtedly the townhouse’s top floor, which has been transformed into a messy installation of posters, pictures, paintings, collages and all manner of ephemera — something like you’d imagine Flood’s bedroom in the late 1970s/early 1980s. There are records and other materials from his punk band, Culturcide, who, on their most famous album, Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America, simply recorded themselves playing and singing over popular songs (which resulted in quite a few copyright complaints and legal threats).
When I visited the gallery, there were also two men hanging out upstairs, assistants whom the artist uses as his surrogates in music videos. One of them laid on a make-shift bed and stared up at the ceiling angstily. Across the way, on a table, lay LP sleeves for the band’s first single, “Another Miracle”/”Consider Museums as Concentration Camps.” And it struck me, and I felt both sad and a little amused, that this is what success in the art world looks like: a DIY, punk-ish mess on the top floor of a townhouse on the Upper East Side.
Mark Flood: The Hateful Years is on view at Luxembourg & Dayan (64 East 77th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 12.