Thursday, October 27, 2011

Your Moment In History

My thoughts on last night's episode of Bravo's Work of Art, spoilers included.

The show opened with the contestants following a long line of unlabeled tin cans, eventually leading to a Warhol soup can and the day's challenge- create a piece of Pop Art. It's a pretty wide open assignment, and any contemporary artist should know enough about it to produce something suitable, or so you might think. Part of the problem was in how one defines "pop art" in the first place. Show host China Chow's instructions were, "We want to know what you have to say about your moment in history", reflecting a statement that Warhol's work was about how he reacted to contemporary culture. I'm not sure if I completely agree with that. Two Warhol pieces cited during the episode were the Campbell's soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles, both products well known to Warhol's generation, but with packaging virtually unchanged since early in the 20th century (his parents' generation). His famous Marilyn Monroe portrait (also mentioned during this episode) was done after her death. A case could be made that these three very famous examples of pop art were as much about nostalgia as contemporary culture. Simon defined pop art with a series of terms- bold, brash, brave, fun, sex, life, political. A special prize was dangled- the winner (and his or her art) would be featured in a two page spread of Entertainment Weekly magazine. On the other hand, two would be eliminated. Let the fun begin.

Some of the artists went with the contemporary events/culture angle. Lola worked with the idea of how text messages played a role in the recent revolution in Egypt, though I found the shoddy looking construction of her oversized cell phones to be a big distraction. Other political issues touched on- extensive foreclosures in rust belt cities (Sarah), and California's Prop 8 (Young). Some felt more like comments on aspects of society- consumerism (Tewz, Dusty and Kymia), multiculturalism (Bayete), the internet (Sara), and celebrity (Sucklord, whose piece about Charlie Sheen's public meltdown period was amusing, but will likely lack the staying power of any of Warhol's icons).

Two artists made pieces that seemed to be more about pop art itself than anything else. Michelle updated Warhol with an image of a Coke Zero can and a grid of aluminum can tops. Like Ugo in the first week, she was repeatedly told that her piece was too derivative, but she decided she didn't have time to do anything else. Leon's grouping of roughly painted American flags screamed Jasper Johns, and the corporate logos scattered over the top were a tired cliche. Jazz-Minh was going to use some self portrait photos as a source for two Warhol style celebrity portraits, but was advised by Simon to avoid the Warhol trap and just showed the photographs themselves. She still ended up joining Michelle and Leon in the bottom four, rounded out by Dusty and his fast food style garbage bin with a message ("How Could You") on the flap. The works by Dusty and Jazz-Minh shared the common problem that their connection to Pop Art was not apparent in the objects themselves, but required an explanation. While Dusty's piece worked as conceptual art, the judges didn't like it all, but may have been swayed by the fact that it was popular with the crowd at the gallery opening. Dusty was spared for another week, as was Michelle, perhaps because of the good will she built up in the first two weeks. Jazz-Minh and Leon were shown the door.

The judges loved Kymia's close up self portrait photo of a bottle of dirty polluted water held between her bare breasts, dealing with both pollution and using sex to sell everything. Of course, such a photograph would have violated standards for what can be shown in a general interest magazine, so the top winner was Young's interactive Prop 8 piece, with simple bold graphics on the front (as I said last year, artists on this show are way too dependent on computers and laser printers to make their work) and a place on the back for people to add messages of support.

With my strong pop influences, this challenge would seem to be right in my wheelhouse...maybe. It really depends on how the judges interpret things. Based on the instructions given by China and Simon in the beginning, my recent smoker piece seems to fit the bill. It was done specifically to capture this exact moment in history (as written about here), and it addresses concepts like life, politics (smoking bans), sex (some in the critique group thought that the attractiveness of the model far outweighed the original concept of smokers forced outdoors), while being boldly graphic. But there's no reference to any specific product or known individual, and no color in the current version. So there's no connection to Warhol (or any of the other big 60's Pop artists), but then again, neither of the top two pieces this week had any connection either.

This moment in history thing got me thinking about past works, and it turns out that even before my smoking figure I was capturing views of a passing era. I'm not talking about purposely retro images done now, but what was contemporary with the art as I made it. There are quite a few examples in my Fourth of July series, which is closing in on 20 years old. Just the first half of year includes images of me mailing letters in envelopes to people back home, doing work on a typewriter, playing a first generation Nintendo game, using a VHS video camera, looking at 35 mm slides in class (ok, I still use slides in my classes, but 90% of my fellow faculty have gone digital)- all things that were perfectly normal in the early 90's but largely outside the experience of today's college students. As the years go on, that series may look more and more like a relic of the distant past.


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