“Obsessed and outraged” are the words I used to describe Philip Guston’s reaction to the administration of President Richard Nixon and his cronies. Philip Roth, his friend and neighbor in upstate New York, was equally disgusted by Nixon and what he represented about the US, a place replete with hatred posing as self-righteousness and bile disguised as religious faith. As Neil Gorsuch’s selection to the Supreme Court proves, that chicken has come home to roost. Roth, whose publication of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) had turned him into a star, took an unexpected turn and wrote the novel Our Gang (1971) with “Trick E. Dixon” as its central character. Guston, whose art had already taken a startling turn away from abstraction, would make another turn in his work with his Nixon drawings, which he shared only with friends. He became two artists, one making art of hooded figures and the other making political drawings of hoods.
In 1971 and again in 1975, Guston drew Richard Nixon with an extended nose that is part penis and part Pinocchio. In two extended bursts, he made more than 180 drawings, as well as a handful of paintings. Never shown in his lifetime, nearly all of his Nixon works were included in the inspiring, much talked-about exhibition, Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975, at Hauser & Wirth (November 1, 2016 – January 14, 2017). Those were the years when America decided to embrace what Hunter S. Thompson, writing about Nixon, called “the werewolf in us: the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts on nights when the moon comes too close…”
As recent events reveal, we needed to replace that shabby, pathetic, predatory episode with an updated monstrosity that, in less than 100 days, has already proven to be shabbier and more venal, petty, paranoid, and delusional than Nixon ever was. If the recent election has taught us anything, it is that America just cannot get enough of narcissistic, loud-mouthed bullies who delight in humiliating others. We need to revel in the debasement of others, which is why we embrace capitalism and follow the rich on Instagram. Like it or not, that’s what this country is, and on November 8, 2016, we decided to formally announce that creepy fact to the world.
Last year’s election freaked out many artists. They wondered what they could do. Make art, march, call their representatives, do all three, or more? Amidst this whirlwind of doubt, worry, fear, and much else, Guston’s art has been an inspiration. You see it in Paul Gagner’s work, which I recently reviewed. Another artist who was upended by the election, and whose work I did not know until now, is Branden Koch.
There are eighty works on paper in the exhibition, Branden Koch: Bald Ego at Regina Rex (April 7 – May 14, 2017), all of which speak to and about the dilemma of being an artist and sympathetic human being in America under the current regime. The works can be divided into two groups, the larger one consisting of political drawings done in black ink on white paper. The other group of about dozen works are done in colored crayons and ink on paper. All eighty works are pinned to three adjacent walls forming an alcove at the back of this basement gallery.
According to Koch’s self-published zine, The Bald Ego and other fantasies, “These drawings were made between November 8th, 2016 and January 20th, 2017…and shortly thereafter.” In the drawing “firing of the self,” which is dated “11/12/16” or four days after the election, Koch depicts two men wearing glasses (both are presumably the artist). One has burst out of the crotch of the other, who is lying on his back. Aiming his index figure at the prone man’s lips, the figure springing from the crotch announces, “You’re fired,” the phrase made famous by the President-elect whose-name-shall-go-unmentioned on his reality-TV show The Apprentice. His other hand clutches a disembodied, limp penis dangling a flagpole and an upside-down America flag. It seems the flagpole has been jammed into the meatus of the glans (OUCH!).
An oversized safety pin binds a wound bisecting the top of the emerging figure’s head, while smaller safety pins line his chest. Meanwhile, the prone figure’s chest and forehead have been neatly opened up, each with four flaps extending into the air, like a pair of boxes. Inside each opening lies a u-shaped form (brain in the forehead, heart in the chest). The artist has been split into two distinct beings, one lying half-dead and the other emerging half-alive.
That feeling of being split, of becoming multiple personalities out of necessity, is common among a lot of people I know. You have to do something but you are not sure what. You do not want to surrender to vertigo, depression, impotence, hopelessness, or fatigue, but all these feelings are inescapable, and, let’s face it, years of it lie ahead. And you know that there are many, many people smugly smiling now that racism, sexism, and the denial of basic human rights are increasingly institutionalized, sanctioned, and made the law of the land.
In some drawings Koch openly cites Guston’s hooded figure, juxtaposing it with his own symbol of the eagle, whose hairdo echoes the bloated excretion who occasionally occupies the White House. There are lots of dripping penises, hand signals, and eagle heads with an eyeball hanging out. Rows of placards and posters fill a couple of drawings. A disembodied hand turns the crank of a spit impaling a row of books; a fire crackles below.
Many of the political drawings are furious with energy. The spewing lines and crowded compositions consolidate the artist’s rage into a focused and precise pitch. There are lots of black splotches, puddles, and pools — oil and sewage, as well as the recurring motif of an ugly little hand signaling a thumbs-up. I was so taken by the ink drawings that I have to confess to not looking carefully enough at the ones in crayon and ink. In them, Koch fills the sheet of paper with swirling, centrifugal marks. It takes a while for some to coalesce into birds, or wings, or part of an owl’s head with its enormous eyes — forms that move between image and abstraction. In the political drawings, Koch does not shift between legibility and illegibility, most likely because to do so would make them art (or arty). It was that artiness that Guston got rid of. I get the feeling that Koch is moving in that direction.
Branden Koch: Bald Ego continues at Regina Rex (221 Madison Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 14.