Mark Wagner is a Brooklyn-based artist and a co-founder of the Booklyn Artists Alliance. His newest exhibition, Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, opened at Pavel Zoubok Gallery in Chelsea on June 30th, just in time for the Fourth of July. The exhibition was designed to coincide with the holiday and features the artist’s usual pithy brand of caricature and cultural commentary.
Wagner’s signature medium is the collaged United States dollar bill. He meticulously dissects and reconstitutes the ubiquitous note into highly detailed sketch-like drawings. Full of filigree and ornamentation, his images tinker with the inner workings of American mythology. The familiar color and detail of his material throws his work into an unavoidable economic and political light. Thermometers, scissors, video game graphics, and symbols of national identity become tongue-in-cheek metaphors for the economic realities of contemporary American life. Phrases like “Blood in the Water” and “Gaming the System” reveal a sinister grin behind Wagner’s whimsical aesthetic. The works range from portraiture and morbid fantasy scenes to simple illustrations that border somewhere between conceptual art and one-liner (which are perhaps too often accepted as the same thing in the art world at large.)
The real gem of the show is Wagner’s newest work, “Liberty,” a massive 204 by 72 inch reproduction of the Statue of Liberty in 14 panels. This monumental work on paper is the firework finale in a series of sardonic fairytale narratives that feature the likeness of George Washington accompanied by the surreal and outlandish. Liberty is actually rendered as a 1:11 scale model of the original sculpture. An army of little Washingtons crawl along every surface, engage with cranes, wrecking balls and torches, and suspend from above like window washers; elsewhere, they climb staircases and work from desks within the gear-filled recesses of Lady Liberty’s stomach. Meanwhile, black silhouetted gingerbread men, dive bombers, flaming trashcans and protesters with picket signs illustrate the drama underlying the bronze surface of American democracy. The end result feels like a state of the union mashup, full of all the humor and anxiety contained within popular culture.
Initially, the artist’s deft use of delicate material and his clever ability to manifest a seemingly infinite array of diverse imagery from such a limited source is obviously impressive. Part of the intrigue of his work is the lure of its almost staggering process. A freestanding trunk, replete with the artists’ sketches, tools, and studio detritus supports a monitor displaying a time lapse video of the artist at work. We learn that “Liberty” took Wagner one year and 1,121 dollar bills cut into 81,895 individual pieces to make. There’s an element of this approach that makes me suspicious; in fact, as a rule I’m wary of art that stakes its claim on the painstaking nature of its own construction.
What’s interesting about Wagner’s work, however, is that it manages to step beyond this crutch of mere neurosis. Humor and process are certainly important parts of his work, but there is a detailed thoughtfulness to his narratives that suggests careful reflection. I’m guessing Wagner has had a lot of time to think about what he’s doing, and the results clearly show it.
Mark Wagner: Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death continues at Pavel Zoubok Gallery (533 West 23rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until August 12.