ArtWeekend

Creature Discomfort: Art in the Cycle of History

It makes sense, at this most critical moment, to take a serious look at the art of the 1980s, its political fury and layered poetics, as an anchor in the storm.

Thomas Houseago, “Giant Figure (Cyclops)” (2011), bronze (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — Creature, a thematic exhibition at The Broad, is one of those shows, like the recently opened Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work at the New Museum in New York, whose meanings and context have been jolted, scrambled, and reloaded by the resistible rise of Donald J. Trump.

As it so happens, Creature opened on November 5th, the Saturday before the election, and the darkly mystical among us might regard that coincidence, accompanied by the exhibition’s looming mascot, “Giant Figure (Cyclops)” (2011), a nearly 15-foot-high bronze by the English sculpture Thomas Houseago, as harbingers of the wreckage to come.

I wouldn’t disagree. The exhibition, a reshuffling of The Broad’s permanent collection, was originally intended, according to an announcement published in August, to present “approaches to figuration and representations of the self”:

Ranging from artworks that examine the human body, to others that allude to a physical presence outside of the artwork itself, Creature offers an array of lenses through which to view the human experience, some scientifically based and others drawing inspiration from cultural representations of how living things change over time.

But in the looking-glass world of Trump, Houseago’s colossus — a fierce, robot-like compaction of bronze-cast clay slabs and blocks of wood that ranges uncomfortably across the bombast of Antoine Bourdelle, the majesty of samurai armor, and the artlessness of a Lego toy — cannot be read as anything other than a personification of imminent authoritarianism. With its single, hollow eye, the symbol of a blinkered worldview, “Giant Figure (Cyclops)” comes off as an outsized guardian figure/Star Wars shock trooper primed to stomp the first outbreak of dissent.

David Wojnarowicz, “Late Afternoon in the Forest” (1986), acrylic, spray paint, and collage on muslin

Similarly, “Late Afternoon in the Forest” (1986), a painting in acrylic, spray paint, and collage on muslin by David Wojnarowicz, attains a renewed severity in light of the kakistocracy — a term (“rule by the worst”) recently popularized by Paul Krugman — that took power one tumultuous month ago.

A fantastical twilit scene painted in sumptuous shades of dark gray, green, and blue, “Late Afternoon” depicts a rocky clearing in the woods dominated by the wreckage of a camouflaged jet fighter-cum-skeletal monster and a giant Olmec-style head with its lips stitched together, a parallel to Wojnarowicz’s own sewn-up lips in the famously harrowing photograph featured on the poster of Rosa von Praunheim’s documentary Silence=Death (1989).

That film was a protest against the Reagan administration’s malign neglect of the victims of AIDS, which killed Wojnarowicz in 1992, but the painting’s thrust is elusive. Its deep shadows and curious details — a tiny, four-armed angel and an equally diminutive centaur battling a lapith (appropriated from the Parthenon, which is glimpsed, in the upper left corner, in duplicate sun-drenched images, two of which flank a postcard view of the south façade of the White House) — conspire to imply that perpetual war (the jet fighter, centaur, and lapith) are God’s gift (the angel) to civilization, no matter how ancient of modern.

But it also may mean nothing of the sort; it can be unpacked any number of ways, none of them comforting to the dominant culture. Whatever the intent, the painting revels in a brazenly abstruse set of pictorial signs whose solidity and invention are the source of its power.

Jenny Holzer, “Laments: I was sick of acting normal…” (1989), detail, black granite sarcophagus with electronic LED sign

Jenny Holzer’s “Lamentations” are here, in black granite (1989) and LED (1987):

I WAS SICK FROM ACTING NORMAL.

I WATCHED REPLAYS OF THE WAR.

WHEN NOTHING HAPPENED I CLOSED A ZONE WHERE I EXERT CONTROL.

I FORMED A GOVERNMENT THAT WAS AS WELCOME AS SEX.

Pinned to an adjacent wall, one of Kiki Smith’s most trenchantly abject works from the Bush I years, “Untitled (Red Man)” (1991), a flayed skin in Gampi paper drenched in red ink, with head and arms ripped from torso, seems to spring forth from another of Holzer’s gnomic phrases, “I GIVE PEOPLE TIME SO THEY FEEL THEIR LIVES MOVING OVER THEIR SKINS.”

Holzer and Smith, like Wojnarowicz, emerged from the caldron of the 1980s, the sharp right turn in American politics that eventually, and inevitably, spewed out Reagan’s scabrous spawn: the witless dauphin singularly responsible for every catastrophe now afflicting the world, and the tangerine golem who has promised to make matters even worse.

Kiki Smith, “Untitled (Red Man)” (1991), ink on Gampi paper in four parts

And so it makes sense, at this most critical moment, to take a serious look at the art they made at that time, its political fury and layered poetics, as an anchor in the storm. In many cases, the passage of time has only strengthened their artworks’ hold on the unalterable realities of our current system, even as they infect the newer objects in the show with a heightened political consciousness made all the more palpable by dint of the recent shift in context.

A piece like Tony Oursler’s “Dust” (2006), a video projection on a large, undulating white sphere, was originally meant to represent, as the wall text puts it, a “microscopic molecule” that would lead us to an “awareness of our own physical presence.” But as ghostly eyes and mouths appear and disappear in the recesses of what looks more like a cloud than a speck of dust, Oursler’s object seems to personify the national security state rather than a contemplation of our brief existence.

Piotr Uklański, “The Nazis” (1998), detail, chromogenic black and white and color photographs mounted on panels, in 164 parts

Likewise, Piotr Uklański’s “The Nazis” (1998), a grid of 164 head shots of Hollywood actors, including Ronald Reagan, donning the togs of an SS officer, seemed 20 years ago like an elaborate one liner, but now with the term “Fascist America” being bandied about with increasing frequency since January 20th, it demands at least a double-take.

An even larger grid, Josh Smith’s show-stopping, mural-sized “Venice Set” (2011) is composed of 30 scuffed-up cardboard sheets (redolent of the Occupy Movement) smeared with white, pink, red, and green paint and collaged with images of whales, stop signs, autumn leaves, and skeletons. In the face of Trump’s predatory capitalist/eco-barbarian cabinet, the work becomes less an “escalating index of forms ready to be recycled,” as we’re told by the wall label, than an indicator of the environmental and economic destruction still to come.

Leon Golub, “Mercenaries V” (1984), acrylic on linen (left) and “Interrogation I” (1981), acrylic on linen (right)

In yet another unanticipated twist, I happened to visit the museum on the Day Without Immigrants, a protest that provided an additional note of urgency to the imagery on display — particularly that of Leon Golub, whose work fills an entire room: six epic paintings from 1980 through ’88, a kind of Reagan-era Pauline Chapel with a naked torture victim hanging upside-down in the place of the crucified St. Peter.

These paintings are of a piece with “White Squad I” (1982), currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the exhibition, Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s. The Broad’s selection, which includes the finest examples of Golub’s work anywhere, cycles through the artist’s evolution from the abstract red oxide fields, gleaned from Imperial Roman frescos, across which his soldiers of fortune are arrayed like paper cutouts (“Mercenaries III,” 1980), to the more realistic settings of “Interrogation I” (1980-81), “Mercenaries V” (1984), and “White Squad V” (1984) and their explicit acts of torture and brutality. (The museum, in fact, has posted a trigger warning.)

Later, Golub concentrated on ambiguous images of generalized panic (“Threnody I,” 1986), urban thuggery, and regular working folk, and finally rounded out the decade in a mythic mode (the two-headed “Wounded Sphinx,” 1988), which returns to the abstracted red oxide field he used in 1980. To be surrounded by these works in a single room is an overwhelming experience.

Leon Golub, “Interrogation I” (1981), acrylic on linen

Golub’s paintings of mercenaries and death squads are lasting testaments to the US proxy wars in Central America and President Reagan’s support of the brutal military dictatorships that made life unlivable in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, precipitating an exodus of refugees that streamed northward for better lives within the citadels of the empire.

If the violence in a painting like “Interrogation I” feels timeless, with its jackbooted guards pummeling the above-mentioned naked victim with a steel pipe as he hangs by his feet like Titian’s Marsyas or Rembrandt’s slaughtered ox, his face obscured by foreshortening, his scrotum beaten to jelly, that impression is derived as much from the inventiveness of the composition — a controlled explosion of diagonals (steel pipe, holster strap, nude legs, rope ends) beside a vertical column of inexplicably untouched canvas — as from the shape-shifting nature of barbarity itself.

But it’s also the painting’s reflection of a specific cycle of history that makes its imagery feel as current as the evening news — a perspective that frames the interventionist policies of Reagan and Bush II within the xenophobia exploited by Trump (through the scorched-earth tactics of his unspeakable mentor Roy Cohn) to seize ultimate power.

In a very real sense, Golub’s human monsters — his hired killers and cretinous torturers — are as mythic as his two-headed sphinx, embodying a recidivism that defies all appeals to humanity and reason, an indelible part of our past that remains locked into the foreseeable future.

Creature continues at The Broad (221 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, California) through March 19.

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