From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art, 1960-1975 @ Detroit Institute of Arts

From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art, 1960-1975, Detroit Institute of Art, Installation Image, Courtesy of DAR

Pop Art emerged in the mid to late 1950s and at its most potent was a high art version of what was being done in the low art pages of MAD magazine, being sold on newsstands at the same time. Its works were a challenge to and a satirical critique of cultural hierarchies, using the popular visual vocabulary of advertising, cinema, comic books and the superabundance of mass-produced banality. It was a reflexive attitude employing bland surfaces to disrupt culture with ironic precision. It was a movement that embraced emergent means of mechanical reproduction to comment on the Capitalist dream machine powered by the post-World War II assembly line.

But as the exhibition “From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art, 1960-1975” at the Detroit Institute of Arts explores, a larger political project emerged from those artists associated with Pop Art to dismantle the machinery of Modernity as war and social injustice chipped away at the later half of the 20th century.

Works by a remarkable roster of artists including Jim Dine, Audrey Flack, Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Marisol, Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, May Stevens and Wayne Thiebaud fill out the exhibition, but there are a core group of works by Corita Kent, Claes Oldenburg, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol that serve as conceptual highlights to the Postmodern thrust of the Pop Art agenda.

Corita Kent, “Enriched Bread” (1965), screen print printed in color on wove paper, 29 ¾ x 36 3/8 inches, All images and artwork courtesy of  the Detroit Institute of Arts 

The Heart

 Enriched Bread (1965) by Corita Kent (1918-1986) is a screen print composed with three horizontal bands of the trinity of primary colors (plus white) so often employed in the rigorous Modernist projects of the Bauhaus and De Stijl. But as it happens, these are also the colors that designer Drew Miller chose in 1921 to adorn the packaging for that all-American lunch staple Wonder Bread. As the story goes, when the vice president of the Taggart Baking Company found himself in a state of “wonder” at the sight of hundreds of red, yellow and blue balloons being released at the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, an idea for sliced bread packaging was born.

“WONDER” appears in large bold red letters below “ENRICHED BREAD” in blue. Further below, in white script on a strip of blue, is the following:

“Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say this hope lies in a nation; others in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, received, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works everyday negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever threatened truth that each and every man, on the foundation of his own sufferings and joys, builds for all.”

This text was the closing to Albert Camus’ lecture Create Dangerously, delivered December 14, 1957 at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, four days after accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature. Camus, the most optimistic of Existentialist thinkers, was pointing the way toward a more constructive future a mere three years prior to his death at the age of 46 in an automobile accident.

Below this, on a strip of red, is “helps build strong bodies 12 ways” and “STANDARD LARGE LOAF” and “no preservatives added”.

At the bottom of the composition is an empty band of pure yellow.

The text in Enriched Bread is not professionally set: letters appear hand-cut, handwritten and hand-painted. Nor are the stacked bands of primary colors presented with Modernism’s clean straight edges. The handmade character of the printed image, bold when viewed at a distance, envelops the viewer in an intimate and heartfelt space upon closer reading.

Wonder Bread had the distinction of being part of a government-sponsored initiative during World War II rationing. Known as the “Quiet Miracle,” loaves were enriched with vitamins that had long gone missing due to the industrialization of bread production. There is a little miracle achieved with this print, which feels like a beating heart in the middle of the exhibition. Corita Kent was an American Roman Catholic religious sister who returned to secular life in 1968. She referenced Wonder Bread packaging in a number of works as a means to add enrichment to the image itself, reclaiming the mass marketed industrialized products of Modernity as a vehicle for intimate and meaningful conversation. What she accomplished with the transformation of her source material through critical recontextualizing, is a transformation of essence that calls to mind the Transubstantiation of the Eucharistic elements. This is not a cynical undermining of production line goods, but a kind of hopeful artistic alchemy that reasserts the humane by way of wonder.

Claes Oldenburg, “Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar” (1970), offset photo-lithograph printed in color ink, 29 x 20 inches.

The Store

There are three iterations of a Good Humor brand ice cream bar on display in the exhibition, by Claes Oldenburg: Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar (1970) is an offset photo-lithograph from a colored pencil drawing, Alphabet/Good Humor—Cloth Study (1972-1973), a small standing cloth and wood sculpture, and Alphabet/Good Humor (1975), a cast resin and polyurethane enamel sculpture  on a bronze base. All three pieces present the ubiquitous ice cream bar, a bite taken out of its upper left corner, as a neat slab of puffy and stubby letters, the alphabet from A to Z, pressed together. On both the lithograph and the enameled sculpture, there is a single drip at the base. In the print, the bite manifests as a letter “A” oozing a thick white cream that cascades over the letter “G.” It should be noted that the letter “O” is situated in the middle of the bar, and appears as a donut with a pinched center made all the more suggestive by the Caucasian flesh coloring chosen by Oldenburg. This implied eroticism mingling with the absurd is present throughout much of Oldenburg’s work as he takes the desire for commodified objects to a new level, locating their latent seductiveness. This began with his artist studio/storefront The Store, which he opened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1961, and stocked with painted plaster replicas of candy bars, pastries and undergarments among other things. The sloppy application of enamel on each object satirized the heavy-handed masculine impulses of action painting as a  mere advertisement of heavy breathing in the American consumerist landscape.

The Good Humor Bar was for Oldenberg, another in a collection of objects that symbolized commodity fetishism. There is a concern for economics running throughout his work. He has made use of the Good Humor Bar in many other works, dating as far back to 1963 with Soft Fur Good Humors, adorned with fake tiger and leopard skin. Then there is the 1965 Proposed Colossal Monument for Park Avenue, New York: Good Humor Bar, in which the enormous, slumped ice cream on a stick blocks traffic in the wealthiest of boulevards. In the 1971 print System of Iconography—Plug, Mouse, Good Humor, Lipstick, Switches, the ice cream bar sits alongside other iterations of the reimagined cultural commodity including his Geometric Mouse, a Constructivist variant on Mickey.

Claes Oldenburg, “Alphabet/Good Humor” (1975), cast resin plated with polyurethane enamel; bronze and wood,, 36 x 19 1/8 x 10  inches.

Alphabet/Good Humor is a uniquely absurd American object. It is both erotic and un-erotic, as its softness and fleshiness remains only a hardened illusion. There is the suggestion of this matrix for the English language eating itself or being eaten as letters pile up, crowding one another out in a suffocating orgy. It sells itself as something other than what it is. It is frozen in a state of forever melting away.

The Machine

Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was co-founder of the British proto-Pop project The Independent Group (1952-55), along with artist Richard Hamilton. He considered himself an “engineering artist,” approaching the act of image-making as industrial production. As early as 1954, the thematic thrust of Paolozzi’s prints involved the merging of machine and body, charting an assembly line wired with the human nervous system. In 1962 Paolozzi embraced the hitherto commercial process of screen printing to produce increasingly complex print imagery reflecting his concerns for humanity in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Included in the exhibition is Paolozzi’s ambitious portfolio of 12 screen prints from 1964, As Is When, which when first exhibited in 1965 was lauded by critics as “the first masterpiece in the medium.” Despite this acclaim, there were curators and print specialists who thought Paolozzi’s new print work was insufficiently handmade, as he had made use of appropriated imagery that was photographically reproduced. Unlike photography, which has long embraced a necessary technical progression, printmaking and printmakers have wrestled with issues of purity (hand-printing vs. machine printing), even though its very foundation was built upon notions of mass production and dissemination. Although Paolozzi’s embrace of commercial reproduction techniques placed him at odds with the fine art print establishment, As Is When did much to dismantle the hierarchy between “fine” and “applied” arts.

But the process by which As Is When was manufactured is necessarily a reflection of Paolozzi’s greater project. Repetition, seriality, mass production—terms that can describe printing but could also describe the media atmosphere from which the artist deconstructed and reconstructed imagery. In these prints we are presented with a dizzying mosaic of shifting information in the form of abstract patterns and the occasional incursion of representational elements. Each image contains fragments of text that develop a complex relationship between language and image. They are impossibly dense, but insistently engaging.

Drawn from the life and writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), As Is When is an attempt by Paolozzi to represent the Austrian philosopher’s fragmentary construction of the experience of reality as a schism between language and the visible world. The complexity of Wittgenstein’s system of thinking, referenced from his text Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), posits the facts of Modernity as being what that are at any given moment. Stable meaning is illusory, merely a fragile geometry. As soon as Paolozzi’s images construct themselves, they break down. They are both stable and unstable

Eduardo Paolozzi, From the “As Is When” portfolio: “Experience” (1965), screen print printed in color ink on wove paper , 38 x 26 inches.

Eduardo Paolozzi, From the “As Is When” portfolio: “Reality” (1965), screen print printed in color ink on wove paper , 38 x 26 inches.

Appropriated from printed advertisements, technical manuals and newspapers, each of the twelve 38 x 26 inch prints presents a series of complex and abstract mappings in which the boldly colored and contrasted patterns keep the viewer in a state of perpetual collating, reorganizing that which appears to be already organized. As with Wittgenstein, Paolozzi begins with a logical structure only to lead his viewer to ever more perplexing states of irresolution. We are left with pure experience as Paolozzi reshuffles his text and image deck, disrupting the progression of narrative by jumbling meaning and creating new juxtapositions. This interest in appropriating material and then remixing and reengineering it is akin to the “cut-up technique” a collage approach to literary construction whereby a written text is cut up at random and rearranged to create a new text.

The new media landscape that Paolozzi was responding to, in which meaning was increasingly susceptible to dissolution, was chipping away at society’s ability to feel. Paolozzi’s close friend, the British novelist J.G. Ballard (1930-2009), described this in the preface to the 1974 French edition of his 1973 novel Crash, which concerns the sexual fetishization of automobile accidents as a metaphor for technological alienation and the death of feeling:

“The marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great tin leitmotifs of the 20thcentury—sex and paranoia. Despite McLuhan’s delight in high-speed information mosaics we are still reminded of Freud’s profound pessimism in Civilisation and Its Discontents. Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings—these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect.”

Richard Hamilton, “Kent State, 1970” (1970), screen print printed in color on wove paper , 53 x 67 1/2 inches, courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Kent State, 1970(1970), a screen print by British artist Richard Hamilton included in the exhibition, hints at this inability to feel: the print was produced using a photograph of a television news broadcast on the killing of four unarmed students demonstrating the Vietnam War on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio on May 4, 1970. Then President Nixon had suggested that the murdered students were to blame for their own deaths and various national polls indicated that the public supported this view. Hamilton, in strong opposition to the Vietnam War, produced his 13-color print in an edition of 5,000 so that “art could help to keep the shame in our minds; the wide distribution of a large edition print might be the strongest indictment I could make.”

The Factory

If Paolozzi commented on the machine, Andy Warhol wanted to become the machine.

Whereas Oldenburg had a Store that humanized the trivial object, Warhol had a Factory that magnified its triviality. The cultural numbness alluded to in Hamilton’s blurred television image of a murdered student at Kent State, finds it’s fullest expression in the works produced by Warhol known as the Disaster series, in which death is the great American commodity.

Andy Warhol, from the series “Electric Chairs” (1971), portfolio of ten screen prints , 35 x 47 ½ inches, lent by Marc Schwartz & Emily Camiener

Andy Warhol, from the series “Electric Chairs” (1971), portfolio of ten screen prints , 35 x 47 ½ inches, lent by Marc Schwartz & Emily Camiener

Appropriating a press-release photograph of an electric chair used in the electrocution of convicted Cold War spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953, at the Sing-Sing Penitentiary in New York State, Andy Warhol produced a number of paintings and prints of the chair from 1963-1967. A later variant in the form of ten screen prints each measuring 35 x 47 ½ inches and titled Electric Chairs (1971), is the non plus ultra of Pop Art’s darker vision in the exhibition.

Much like Paolozzi, in the 1960’s Andy Warhol repurposed the commercial method of screen printing, allowing for image repetition and the means to manipulate the “decay” of the picture. In addition to his iconic celebrity works, from 1962 to 1967 Warhol focused on reproducing images of suicides, car crashes, accidental deaths, race riots and the aforementioned electric chair. Taken from black and white photographs appearing in newspapers and tabloids of the day, the image quality was intentionally degraded, pointing toward Roland Barthes’ sentiment that the photographic image inherently speaks to the catastrophe of death. In these Disasterworks, as they’ve come to be known, Warhol is ultimately a black humorist. Beginning with his painting 129 Die In Jet (Plane Crash) from 1962 (his first “death” work), there was an ironic fatality present in all of Warhol’s output from this period. An inevitability of decay and death possesses subsequent works as well as a fundamental absurdity in repetition, scale, and use of color, all exhibited in the most deadpan manner. Warhol achieved a glib portrayal of the American zeitgeist in the 1960’s with this series. In Foot and Tire (1963-1964), depicting an absurdly outsized truck tire with a human foot beneath it, Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times (1963), Five Deaths Seventeen Times in Black and White (1963), and his numerous Electric Chair works, he revealed our cultural morbidity against the backdrop of an unstable era. His repeated reproduction of the already cheap newspaper printing quality is intentionally haphazard.

Andy Warhol, from the series “Electric Chairs” (1971), portfolio of ten screen prints , 35 x 47 ½ inches, lent by Marc Schwartz & Emily Camiener

When the image of the electric chair is enlarged and degraded, repeated ten times, each iteration given a palette of garish and vibrating color, there is an absurd banality on display in this work that strikes the distanced pose of the black humorist. Nothing is being clearly satirized. Instead the simple vulgarity of our cultural penchant for “death gawking” is put on display, to be neatly hung on a fashionable gallery wall, or perhaps in a living room not far from the television set.

Warhol’s Electric Chairs are intended to silence the room, to suck the air from it. We sit, we stare, we grow numb. And yet not far off in the exhibition space nourishment is close at hand in the form of Corita Kent’s Enriched Bread. Now would be a good time to revisit that work.

From Camelot to Kent State: Pop Art 1960-1975, on view at The Detroit Institute of Arts through August 25, 2019

David Opdyke @ The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities

Paved With Good Intentions

For Queens-based artist David Opdyke, the manipulation of scale as a means to transform great existential threats posed by the ceaseless appetites of late capitalism conjoined with the convulsions of American politics, into something more relatable–models that collapse overwhelming chaos into tragicomic vignettes–is an essential tool to remind his audience of its place in a complex narrative of global survival. In sculpture, installation, animation and drawing, Opdyke relies upon our innate sense of childlike wonder at a miniaturized world as it transforms the relationship we have with our own full scale world, teetering on the edge of collapse and brimming with grown-up trauma. With a vision that is both epic and intimate, balancing the sublime with the grotesque, he threads the marvelousness of the microcosmic with macrocosmic socio-political concerns. Having previously worked as a scenic painter and architectural model-maker for 20 years, tweaking perception to clarify the structure of the world seems a natural fit.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), 528 vintage postcards modified with gouache and ink, full installation view

“David Opdyke: Paved With Good Intentions,” on view at The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities in Ann Arbor, where Opdyke is the 2019 Efroymson Emerging Artist in Residence, presents a selection of eight works, including a collection of animated shorts, a two-channel video, and most notably an ambitious site-specific installation comprised of 528 postcards, titled “This Land” which gathers many of the artist’s preoccupations into a single monumental statement.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

To start with one of the 528 postcards, at the top of which is a caption: “676: –FORD ROTUNDA AND ADMINISTRATION BUILDING AND FACTORY, DETROIT, MICH.” The card, from the mid-20thcentury was printed on a stock using a process that replicated the texture of linen. Its horizontal image appears at once photographic, but also painted, since it has been hand-tinted. Upon closer inspection, the character of its printednessemerges: the image breaks down into a fuzzy pattern, accentuated by transparent colors that bleed and overlap– a patch of grass seems to become a building and vice versa.

The subject of the card is a landscape containing the Ford Rotunda, a Streamline Moderne structure originally built for the 1934 “A Century of Progress International Exposition” World’s Fair in Chicago, to serve as a pavilion for the Ford Motor Company. It was later moved to Dearborn, Michigan on the outskirts of Detroit where it housed elaborate displays celebrating industrial progress, until it was destroyed in a fire in 1962.  Additionally, the original Ford Administration Building (destroyed in 1997) is shown, the River Rouge and in the distance Ford’s massive Rouge factory. All of this is seen from a bird’s eye view as a celebration of the way in which Ford transformed the landscape of Dearborn into an Industrial metropolis that promised a better future.

However, there is a hand-painted intervention within the image that is not quite right. There are large grey pipes horizontally slicing through the view; massive pipelines dwarfing the scale of the architecture in the postcard. A pipe slams into the Administration Building causing cracks in its limestone. A pipe penetrates the roof of the rotunda. There also appears to be a flood whose crashing waves are encroaching upon the Rotunda. Where are the pipes coming from? Where are they going? From where are the flood waters emerging?

The answers appear when perception is adjusted and one steps back and finds that this is a single postcard situated within a grid of 528 postcards, assembled as “This Land.” But as the sources of the pipelines and the flooding are revealed, many more questions emerge. Stepping even further back, the individual postcards coalesce into a view of the sublime. Remarkably, although each postcard is of a unique landscape in disparate US locations, Opdyke achieves the sort of geographic sleight-of-hand normally reserved for Hollywood cinema, in which far-flung locations are collapsed into a single unified setting. This single setting resembles a Hudson River School landscape, complete with mountains and valleys, snow-covered peaks, bodies of water, a blue sky. But before Woody Guthrie can be conjured, and his refrain of this land being made for you and me, the entire picture falls apart.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

 

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

The grid of cards collapses as the panorama is fractured. Cards slide down the surface of the wall, with some having dropped to the floor. You can read the reverse of some of these, with the handwritten sentiments of marveling travelers frozen in time. With the breaking apart of the whole comes the need to reexamine each card closer. What was once sublime is now complicated as the mural begins to resemble Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” (1833-1836),  a cycle of five paintings that charts the rise and fall of human civilization: “The Savage State”, “The Arcadian or Pastoral Phase”, “The Consummation of Empire”, “Destruction” and finally “Desolation.”

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

 

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of installation

As with the ironic intervention seen in the depiction of the Ford Rotunda, ruin and destruction has been embellished upon most of the other postcards depicting an idealized American landscape. Aside from occasional moments of calm, on an almost biblical scale there is famine, flood, fire and pestilence. Dark grey maelstroms and tornado funnels abound, frogs rain down, locusts swarm, forests burn, crops freeze, and lightning bolts emerge from black clouds that conjure visions of the English Romantic painter John Martin (1789-1854). But this is no mere visitation by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as Opdyke reminds us that humanity is perfectly capable of delivering its own end times, daily.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

There is fracking and oil pumping and water diversion… endless pipes serve to carve up and bleed the dying landscape before us. What was once idealized in these postcards: industry, agriculture, transportation, glorious infrastructure projects advertised as the youthful ambitions of a country building itself by way of engineering the land, has soured. A dream of opportunity for constructing a utopia has morphed into the ruinous late capitalist agenda of monstrous development at any cost. Excessive waterfront high rises have been erected, massive walls are built, as human behavior results not in an organized response to tackle its own mistakes head-on, but instead leads to ineffectual political infighting and ever more chaos in the form of panic, cults, and tribal division.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

And then there are the B-Movie monsters populating this postcard landscape: giant insects, sea creatures and omnivorous plant life. Mutant spawns that could be the result of unchecked capitalism reengineering nature. B-movie horror and disaster scenarios have always been a stand-in for human irresponsibility and the monstrosities on display here are no exception. There a moments that seem to nod toward “It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955) with a set of Ray Harryhausen tentacles overtaking a riverboat on the Mississippi. There are crumbling edifices and cataclysmic cracks  that could have been manufactured on a studio backlot for a film such as “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956). Roadways and bridges clogged with motorists attempting to escape certain doom recall the mass hysteria of Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” (2005).

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), Detail of vintage postcard modified with gouache and ink

Opdyke is establishing an allegorical narrative of ironic critique by repurposing and rupturing romantic, idealized panoramas of the past. There is a kinship with contemporaries such as Walton Ford and Alexis Rockman, who both conflate scientific illustration and heroic history painting into large scale Quasi-Romantic works ironically embedded with destabilizing minutiae. Along with Ford and Rockman, these are images that compress past, present and future into a single tragicomic narrative. That Opdyke sets all of these hand-embellished catastrophes against the miniature hand-tinted backdrop of the vintage postcard as a contemporary gesture, makes perfect sense. These are souvenirs of place, and by extension of historical memory and the subsequent abandonment of the past. They represent an ideal once embraced and long-since discarded. The postcard was once a way to communicate “I’ve seen this. I was here.” It was a forerunner to Instagram as a means to place ourselves into the world and report back home as a way of confirming our feats of travel and locating ourselves within a larger narrative of collective experience.

David Opdyke, “This Land” (2019), installation view

Most of those who attended the opening of “Paved With Good Intentions,” crowded before “This Land” while taking iPhone photos of select views. Were they seeking out places they had been? Places where they were from? Documenting specific horrors that amused? Rarely did I see any of the viewers backing up to read the entire piece in its state of faux sublimity. All were pushed in, investigating at the closest possible viewing distance. Locating themselves in the details. Opdyke’s use of the postcard acts as a time machine for what has, is and will be seen. It is a way to implicate the viewer within the continuum of this catastrophic narrative in the Instagram era by way of asking us “You see this, don’t you?” Yes, we do.

David Opdyke @ The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities  Through February 27, 2019

 

 

W.C. Bevan @ Greenroom Gallery

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” partial installation view, All images – Ryan Standfest

Entering into the space of the new Greenroom Gallery for its second exhibition, “Contrast”, a collection of 24 black and white painted, printed and drawn works by W.C. Bevan, muralist, graffiti artist, printmaker and painter, one comes upon a seamless environment in which wall surface and the individual works presented on it, augment one another to resemble a brightly-lit cave covered with symbols and representations both prehistoric and futurist, of our time and outside of our time, vague and precise. There is a timeless music issuing forth from this chamber.

BLACK & WHITE

W.C. Bevan states that black and white is his “preferred mode of transport.” It’s usage suggest basic black ink on white paper, the foundation of a D.I.Y. print aesthetic cultivated in an underground Punk culture of fast and cheap photocopied zines, handbills and posters. But economic necessity also gives way to meaningful form, as high contrast lends itself to the graphically impactful, the immediate read from whatever distance. Color can carry with it nuance, emotional shading, a reading that depends upon one’s preconceived connection to a color. Whereas the simple combination of black plus white has no hidden agenda up its sleeve.

However, there is the presence of grey. When Bevan utilizes a can of black spray paint to adorn the walls of his exhibition space, he makes skilled use of the resulting overspray as a gradient, softening the image. He likens this to the mis-registration of a printed image, in which a layer of color slips outside of its intended target, accidentally lending further dimension. Indeed, there are also an abundant number of drips allowed to remain, unedited, that keep the space active, reminding the viewer of the performance required to manufacture marks.

Bevan’s methodology is a balancing act between exerting control and embracing chance. Upon an initial encounter with a space, a wall, a surface, a scenario must be devised in reaction to circumstance. Visual anchors are established using large scale icons. Connective threads between these anchors take the form of repeated visual motifs, adornments that form a flowing space to be read. Entering the Greenroom Gallery space, flashes of prehistoric cave art abound. As with the Paeolithic paintings found in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave, Bevan’s spray-painted marks respond to the various openings, contours and edges of the wall’s surface, making use of spatial shifts as an opportunity to animate his shapes and lines.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall, 2018

These adornments comprise a lexicon, assembled from typographic symbols. Bevan’s walls have a strong hieroglyphic character, suggesting black and white pictographic texts. It is no surprise then, that his practice of black and white mural painting began with the 2015 project “True Meridian,” which adorns a large wall on the former Eastern Market location of the letterpress shop Salt & Cedar, on the East Fisher Service Drive. Proprietor Megan O’Connell and Bevan had envisioned the mural as a black and white “cathedral of type” in response to the idea of letterpress. The resulting image retained its ecclesiastical architectonics, but letterforms gave way to a dizzying pattern of abbreviated characters.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall, 2018

Growing up in Cleveland, surrounded by examples of opulent turn of the 20thcentury architecture, much of Bevan’s wall-marking practice has been defined by a relationship with architectural ornamentation; the decorative repetitions that activate the façade of a building through the rhythmic accretion of detail. This visual language is on view in “Contrast.”  The Classical ornamental device known as “egg and dart,” which consists of an egg-shaped object alternating with another element shaped like an arrow or a dart, is echoed in the spray-painted embellishments on Bevan’s walls.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall with “Untitled” drawings and “Tire Poem” print, 2018

TIRES

The “contrast” of the title is not just black and white, but also the organic and the inorganic. One prominent text adorning a wall states “BIOILLOGICAL TIMES” (a kind of subtitle to the show) as a reminder of the uneasy relationship between the natural and the industrial.

The recurring motif of the exhibition is the automobile tire. It appears in a series of oversized visual anchors, in a smaller series of screen prints with poems scrawled in black oilstick, as piles in smaller acrylic paintings on canvas, and deconstructed as tread marks that reframe and elaborate a new, more playful architecture within the exhibition space.

W.C. Bevan, “Tires”, acrylic on canvas, 22 x 17.5 inches, 2018

In the series of small acrylic paintings depicting tire piles, the subject becomes a surrogate for bodies—slumped, disposed of. Bevan speaks of the tire as a thing that has gone places, that has been worn down while carrying us places, therefore having a history itself. The very idea of the tread has multiple meanings: to walk along, to press down onto the ground, to crush or flatten. In “Contrast,” tires themselves have been crushed and flattened, having carried themselves too far. The piles he depicts morph into less recognizable heaps and mounds, as they go treadless. Throughout the exhibition space, there is an unraveling of the tire, a peeling away of the tread—unspooled to become architectural pattern.

W.C. Bevan, “Wall Peeps”, acrylic on canvas, each 15.5 x 12.5 inches, 2018

Ultimately, the tire is not the subject. In fact, the tires are not just tires. For Bevan, the urban experience of the discarded tire, tossed into a field, piled, stacked, becomes an absurd totem. A deflated tragicomic sign of what has passed. Bevan’s tires are droopy, flaccid, out of shape. Having spent some time painting commercial signs populated by “hamburgers, liquor bottles and tires” for quick cash, Bevan has spoken of a fondness for hand-painted tire shop signage around the city of Detroit, that often represents the tire and or wheel as something misshapen. Unmoored by the refined craft of a trained artist, there is an clumsy earnestness to most of these signs with their straightforward deformation of what Bevan calls “the thing that keeps America moving.”

STREET

On screen printed works each titled “Tire Poem,” Bevan scrawls variant texts with a black oil stick, at the sides of each repeated, centrally printed tire image. The texts have a touch of the street to them, rough fragments drifting into the image nudging them toward something resembling a hand-painted sign:

LONG HISTORIC PIANO SONG

PIRATES MADE OF YOGA

GREAT FOR WALKIN’ MAN I’LL TELL YA

SUDAFED NAIL BED

MMAMA ALWAYS SAID LIFEE ISS GOOD THHEN YOUREEBORN A RAT

YOU’RE A PONYTAIL WOW

W.C. Bevan, “Tire Poem”, screen print with oil stick, 28 x 22 inches, 2018

The majority of the work in “Contrast” makes use of vernacular visual street language.  In conversation, Bevan points out a series of paintings depicting tires by the artist Art Green, who was a member of the Chicago-based Hairy Who—a group of artists producing work in the late 1960s to early 1970s that was a potent mélange of high and low tendencies culled from comic books, Art Brut, commercial advertising and popular illustration, resulting in fragmented and highly fluid, often sexually-charged work that was a deliriously absurd response to the times it was made in. Similarly, Bevan’s work constructs a “Rustbelt Absurd” with its own pictorial elasticity, erasing notions of high and low with a language both refined and unrefined, and a practice that bridges the street and the studio with mural painting and graffiti, printmaking and painting.

W.C. Bevan, “Hamtramck Memory Drawing”, acrylic on paper, 22.5 x 15 inches, 2018

There is a portrait, seemingly out of place in the exhibition, titled “Hamtramck Memory Drawing,” of a man, possibly of Eastern European extraction, partially cropped. Possibly working class. Possibly from the Poletown neighborhood Bevan has lived in since March of 2018. The drawing, executed with sprayed acrylic on paper, is a soft grey. It feels distant and contrasts with much of the hard-edged graphic work in the exhibition. In its quietness, it asserts itself as a reminder of the human dimension of Bevan’s work, the psychological lifeblood of a black and white Rustbelt vision, placing the everyday of the studio into the street, and vice versa, while summoning the abundant wall-painted symbols as dispatches from a landscape tread upon.

“Contrast: Black and White works by W.C. Bevan”
November 30, 2018-February 1, 2019
Greenroom Gallery Detroit
located within Emerson’s Haberdashery, 1234 Washington Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226
Gallery Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10-6pm
Closing reception on Feb. 1, 2019, 6-9pm