With the exhibition Pretty on the Inside at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, co-curators KAWS and Erik Parker reveal that they must be fans of the Courtney Love-led band Hole — and its debut album and song for which it is named — but they also make us wonder about the show’s connection to music.
Since I am a sucker for day-glo paint, I enjoyed the brightly colored cartoonish works in the show but questioned the overall theme of the exhibition being based on an album and song that I doubt many people under the age of 25 remember.
Filled with paintings, drawings and a few unexpected sculptures, Pretty on the Inside brings together different generations of artists who work with Pop and cartoon imagery. From Peter Saul and Karl Wirsum, who are known for their acid-colored works from the the 1960s, to a street artist like KAWS, who is more commonly associated nowadays with vinyl toys and Hennessy bottles, the works in the exhibition showcase the fun, liveliness and also the beauty of comic and cartoon-based art. With the various generations of artists, its obvious that KAWS and Parker envisioned the exhibition as a landmark, but the trendiness of the 1990s nostalgia ingrained in the theme weakens the enduring power of the show.
Even though using Hole as an inspiration may not have been a great idea in the long run for KAWS and Parker, a connection between Hole’s music and the comic inspired works in the exhibition can be found. While walking through the show, I realized much like the dichotomy between Courtney Love’s screeching vocals and the flawed beauty of Hole’s music, the works in Pretty on the Inside reveal an emotional depth even with the jarring and, at times, painful brightness of the paint and cartoon imagery.
Beginning as a street artist subverting billboards and advertisements with his trademark x-ed out eyes, KAWS’s paintings made a fairly easy transition from the street to canvas. The street art sensibility pervades his gallery work and the bright colors and comic inspiration indicates a connection with graffiti culture, which often looks to the flat graphic world of comics as creative inspiration. While the blatant commercialism of KAWS’s recent stunts such as the Hennessy bottles annoys me, I found myself drawn to his paintings included in the exhibit. Using brilliant colors, particularly the near-blinding yellow for the eyes, his “Double Up” (2011) canvas gives a sense of an animate face even though its structure is distorted.
A work by co-curator Erik Parker, “Means to an End” (2011), was one of the most arresting on display. On a long canvas that is placed upright against the gallery wall, the painting appears as a totem pole with the varying levels of characters like several comic strips placed vertically. Near overwhelming when viewed, the complexity and vast amount of different scenes and patterns creates its own little discordant world on the vertical canvas.
The most political works in the exhibition, Todd James‘s drawings cover an entire wall of the Paul Kasmin Gallery, providing serious cultural statements masked beneath the vibrant cartoonish drawings. At first appearing like crude drawings, the political content with the armed men adds weight to the normally goofy world of cartoons.
Even though Joyce Pensato‘s works of famous cartoon characters in the exhibition are the least colorful, their size and the strong strokes of the charcoal and pastel make her drawings slightly menacing and give the show a darker and more menacing air.
Karl Wirsum, who is associated with the Hairy Who group of artists from Chicago (c. late 1960s) that included Jim Nutt, his work appears as one of the forefathers of the Pop imagery and bright colors of the later generation of artists in the show. Transcending the basic Pop portrait, Wirsum creates movement and grace from his disjointed and meandering lines.
Tony Matelli‘s “Double Meat Head” was the work in the exhibit that seemed to come out of nowhere. After looking at painting and drawings using loud colors to create beautiful works, the bronzes representing a self-portrait out of meat that eventually, in the second sculpture, has disintegrated into a rotting, fly-ridden pile seems out of place in the exhibit. However, the sense of the ordinary materials, whether comic illustrations or meat, and the beauty in their chaotic decay fits in with the theme of the exhibition.
While the works in the Paul Kasmin Gallery’s Pretty on the Inside reflect the same dissonance and wasted beauty of the Hole album, the legacy of the exhibition may be harmed by using a near obscure Hole album and song, playing into 90’s nostalgia. Looking at how this exhibition will be viewed in the future, the question asked by Courtney Love in the song remains:
Are they pretty from the back?
Pretty on the Inside will be on view at the Paul Kasmin Gallery until August 19th, 2011
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.