The group show SQUIRTS at Regina Rex is small and succinct but manages to convey a lot in the gallery’s diminutive space. April Childers, David Leggett, and Max Maslansky mine pop culture imagery to deliver — according to the press release — “hard and fast truths through urgent expression.” The artists in the show share a strong tendency toward irony, the use of found objects and imagery, sexual awkwardness, cheeky humor, and work that is just plain fun to look at.
April Childers’s “A Place to Put Things (Whose Fault is it for Livin Anyways?!!)” is a damp yard sale of an installation with piled and precariously stacked found objects — your grandmother’s kitsch detritus, discarded pants, shoelaces, short-run Milton Bradley board games, and cheap Halloween décor. Looking carefully amid the heaping assemblage, it is rewarding to spot delightful oddities like animal remnants in various stages and modes of preservation. The artist is a self-taught taxidermist and has used her posthumous animal creations as sculptural elements in her work. SQUIRTS includes a lidded freezer of found road-kill that visitors can open, inducing a reliable gesture sequence of lift-and-cringe. But the effect is somewhat tempered for any seasoned art aficionado whose gag reflex for taxidermy is desensitized by the ubiquity of the form in contemporary art — one almost expects to find the taxidermist’s unholy tools and elixirs next to the Conté Crayons at Dick Blick.
Max Maslansky renders alternately depressing and amusing sexual scenarios based on photos found online and paints them in a style that resembles amateur painting — the type where the novice’s fear of brush saturation leaves a canvas with a scrubbed rather than painterly surface. The depicted revelers, masturbators, sex workers, and exhibitionists maintain anonymity with blocked out areas of color that obscure features and expressions. The fleshy, scuffed surfaced “Mirror, Mirror” (2012) looks like an inevitable addition to George W. Bush’s oeuvre if he continues to be left despised and idle in Texas.
David Leggett’s small-scale pieces hang frameless on unassuming paper and shoddily stretched canvas, an aesthetic that contributes to the jokey offhandedness of the content of the pieces. His clever integration of image and text deals with race in a way that walks the line between wry and biting. His works call to mind Ellen Gallagher’s small, closely-hung pieces that apply wit and visual dexterity — also a similar recurring googly eye motif — to mass media representations of African Americans.
Leggett appears less inclined toward the didacticism of identity politics and more organically smart and expressive. He seems to have figured out a new way for art to make white people feel uncomfortable. A pukey pink canvas is scrawled with the words “Niggas on Mars” and a painting called “white guilt” depicts a too cute kitty and a pretty read head — only she appears to be vomiting garbage in a field of toxic green.
A sense of irony pervades each artist’s work and is only made stronger in the assembled group. April Childers’ kitsch cast-offs remind us how pleasant it can be to dwell in the hipster mental space where derision for all things saccharine, commercial, and mass-produced is momentarily overcome by the charming aesthetics of middle class sincerity. The slumped participants in Max Maslansky’s encounters fall on the grimmer side of sexual experience. They appear to be taken from the kind of online sex pics that are driven by desperation and alienation, but the scenes are rendered in the palette of a child’s watercolor set with an all-over jazziness of shape and pattern. David Leggett’s visual witticisms apply irony to subjects as far flung as Jesus, stoner culture, Modernism, and tropical sunsets, an effect that is aided by his use of amateur artist materials — craft store pom-poms, felt, and novelty acrylic paint.
A stand-out element of SQUIRTS is the irony directed at a distinctly 1990s pop and youth culture sensibility. The artists were born between 1976 and 1980 which would make the early 1990s the period of their formative teenage years. References to that era take the form of ubiquitous trends of the time — Childer’s chunky neon shoe-laces, Puma skate shoes, and oversized mom tees. And Leggett references the definitive anti-hero of the moment, Bart Simpson. Early 90s graphic style can be found in Leggett’s neon splatter work, and if you were to remove the forlorn sexual content from Max Maslansky’s “Break Time” (2012), the environment strongly resembles the jagged-edged, color burst stylings of the burger joint hangout from the Saved By the Bell television series.
SQUIRTS struck me as an interesting companion exhibition to the New Museum’s concurrent exhibition NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star — a survey of art made around the year 1993. An examination of the early 90s in terms of artistic production is enhanced by a look at work by artists whose nascent identities were shaped during the period in question. SQUIRTS provides an interesting point of comparison between artists working in that cultural moment with its socio-economic troubles — Mid East conflict, culture war polarization, debates surrounding gay rights and gun control — and the “Millennials” who inherited the period’s cultural and artistic legacies.
The artists represented in NYC 1993 grappled with content and modes of art making that were newly acknowledged in art after their longtime banishment from mid-century modernism. With due earnestness, they dealt with representational and narrative forms, racial and sexual identity, AIDS, psychology, consumerism, etc. In SQUIRTS, Childers, Maslansky, and Lefferts deal with direct personal memory of the period from a child’s perspective, which naturally centers on the superficial — popular trends in fashion and the shared experience of television idol worship.
Certainly, a group of 20 and 30-something artists can be found that more closely parallels the seriousness and candor of many artists working in the 1990s — the Whitney Biennials and the New Museum’s own generational, Younger than Jesus, were full of them. But if the NYC 1993 artists represent the “dream of the ‘90s” sincerity, SQUIRTS feels like Portlandia-style jesting.
SQUIRTS continues at Regina Rex (1717 Troutman Street, Suite 329, Ridgewood, Queens) until March 31.