By Raisa Clavijo
Richard Hamilton, a pioneer of Pop art, whose collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956) is considered the first expression of this artistic movement in the history of art, asked himself in 1962, “Can popular culture be assimilated into the fine art consciousness?” This question has dominated the cultural debate of the last 50 years. The eternal contradiction between high culture and mass culture, or popular culture, has been a permanent presence in the history of Western art and is still an essential theme. Inspired by this, Canale Díaz Art Center, in Coral Gables, has curated an exhibition that groups together five contemporary artists whose work is very different but who share a common source in that they each start with Pop art to construct their own language, the result and reflection of each of their creative contexts.
In the mid 1950s, art for the first time embraced the visual universe of mass culture, advertising and consumerism, associating these seductive images with the idea of progress and innovation. Pop did not only seduce artists, art critics, intellectuals and the general public, but it also changed our way of consuming the product presented to us by mass media and our way of perceiving art and culture.
London and New York were the cradles of Pop art. The movement emerged in London in the mid 1950s with the Independent Group (IG) and with artists like David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones, Peter Phillips, R.B Kitaj and Hamilton himself. In the United States, Pop art entered the scene in 1961. At that time, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, precursors of this movement in the U.S., were already famous. Along with them, a group of artists that included Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana and Tom Weselman, among others, was formed.
Artists of the first Pop art era reacted to the burgeoning consumer society, which emerged in the U.S. after World War II. Each of them captured an aspect of that new culture, which was nothing more than a reflection of the desire for social mobility that fueled the unbridled acquisition of material goods. During the 1980s, with the deregulation of markets during the Reagan era, consumerism increased through telemarketing; and thanks to the influence of advertising, the media and the rapid expansion of malls, it became institutionalized as one more form of entertainment. Artists like Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Lynn Hershman Leeson adopted that culture of consumerism and the hedonistic spirit of the period as a theme for their work. In the new millennium, technological development and the Internet have shortened distances, simplified communication and accelerated commercial transactions, often substituting the physical experience of shopping with the virtual experience of purchasing online. Our current culture is one in which the image dominates, in which appearance is more important than content. Zygmunt Bauman, in Intimations of Postmodernity (Routledge, 1992), called attention to the intellectual’s loss of authority in dictating the norms of taste, truth and morality in culture and in today’s society. Culture based on image has appeared to shorten the path to success. For some time now being is not as important as appearing to be. An image that symbolizes power and prosperity on social networks has a more immediate impact than success itself. It functions as a kind of cultural capital that leads to the reinforcement of “celebrity culture,” which is nothing more than the exacerbated manifestation of the ego.
Hal Foster, in The First Pop Age (Princeton University Press, 2012), pointed out that Pop signified “a definitive change in the cultural makeup of the individual.” It was the detonator for reformulating modernity and for analyzing how this has defined popular visuality. Foster analyzes how Pop “matters” to the extent that it gathers and synthesizes the way in which the contemporary individual has been inspired by the legacy of modernity and how the visual language of modernity has inundated daily life, street graffiti, advertising, television, etc. In analyzing the work of Lichtenstein, Foster noted how his work was inspired by the imprint of Picasso and Cubism, even repeating Lichtenstein’s observation of how many comics take elements from Cubism in their method of synthesizing, capturing the most relevant details of a specific form or situation. Pop art signified increasing the value of elements that in the past were considered “lowbrow” but which are now firmly established in contemporary culture. It also signified increasing the value of the painting and of the craftsmanship to the extent that the image of daily life needed to be immortalized and revalued. However, behind Pop art’s optimistic smile lies a critique of society, pointing to rampant consumerism, an existential vacuum, a refuge in the ego itself, in the constant repetition and reaffirmation of the image itself. Subjects chosen by the Pop artist throughout this movement, as well as his method of representing them, are the expression of his own psyche. The way in which each artist confronts and appropriates elements from popular culture and the manner in which he chooses elements that confirm his visuality and his selection reflect his individual self.
Each of the artists featured in this show has chosen different subjects and expressive languages with which to approach contemporary culture and society. Venezuelan Alejandro Plaza develops a work that has the spirit of today’s world, permeated by the accelerated frenzy of modern life. His work reveals the visual universe of a generation born at the end of the 1980s, who grew up watching cartoons, Walt Disney movies and Japanese anime, whose visuality is also closely linked to the aesthetic evolution of the videogame industry. It is a generation for whom experiences are above all ephemeral and interactive, for whom technology, the Internet and social networks are a natural part of life. The exhibition includes portraits like Cherry Coke and Candy Love, both from 2014, which are inspired by the language of comics, urban graffiti, advertising and graphic design. Also included are works like Lon-York (2015), which is Plaza’s personal vision of London and New York, cradles of Pop art. In this manner, the artist reconstructs in a very personal code a landscape made up of recognizable fragments of two urban spaces that have influenced his visuality. For his part, Ahmed Gómez, a Cuban living in Miami, points to the utopian character of modernist artistic discourse, to the anachronism of norms enthroned as canons. He combines images of Pin-Up girls conveyed to American cinema and advertising in the 1940s and 50s with the icons of Constructivism, Suprematism and Concrete Art. His “Pin-Up Alphabet” is a mischievous nod at the graphic legacy of modernity with that mixture of reverence and iconoclasm so dear to Pop art. His work is sustained in analyzing and understanding the aesthetic nature of the discourses of power in order to break them down and recontextualize them, revealing their very cracks.
The Venezuelan Raúl Cardozo also combines icons from so-called “high culture” with scenes and personages from contemporaneity in a kind of amusing collage, which is nothing more than the reflection of the thousands of fragments that make up the conscience of today’s social being. In his “last suppers,” Donald Trump shares the scene with Donald Duck, Superman, Jessica Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, George Washington, the Louis Vuitton logo and the famous burial mask of Tutankhamen.
For his part, Puerto Rican Antonio Cortés Rolón presents works from his series “Un actor en la Casa Blanca,” in which politicians and celebrities coexist. Since the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, politicians and Hollywood celebrities have shared the admiration of the public. It is well known that mass media has turned movie and television stars into the idols of the average citizen. In the world of today, in which access to information has been democratized and in which, thanks to social networks, politicians have come down from their symbolic pedestals to become integrated with popular culture, Cortés Rolón develops what art critic and curator Paco Barragán has called “anti-painting of history.” His pieces follow the rules of the traditional painting of history, but the artist does not immortalize moments, nor does he contribute to consolidating a national conscience. In the words of Barragán, “his paintings look back in order to force us to look with critical eyes at what lies as much inside as outside of the frame of recent history in which democracy, capitalism and the culture of the spectacle have gone hand in hand.”
Lastly, the Venezuelan sculptor Andrés Celis presents works from three series. The first of them, “Garabatos,” consists of large and medium-size sculptures, sculpted in metal, whose forms are a stylization of urban graffiti. They carry the spirit and spontaneity of a line sketched haphazardly, conceived to be ephemeral. In contrast, his series inspired by fruit and musical instruments salvage his country’s rich artisanal tradition of wood carving but combine it with the aesthetic language of modernity that in Venezuela has permeated the visuality of the average man through urban murals and public art works. In this manner, Celis assimilates and absorbs the legacy of artists like Kandinsky, Miró and Paul Klee in a way that is very personal and imbued with a sensitivity dear to popular culture.
While writing this text, I remembered that in 2014 from the pages of ARTPULSE we promoted a debate in which 100 professionals from the world of art shared their opinions about the continuing validity of the contradictions between high culture and pop culture, a theme that has permeated the history of Western art for the past 50 years. One of the questions that Paco Barragán introduced was whether the history of art is still the platform from which to develop a more critical interpretation of the dialectics of culture, or if instead we should look outside to the vilified popular culture. The artists present in “PopMatters” are clear on this issue; the so-called “low culture” is the source that motivates them to reflect on the world in which they live. Behind images that could appear “banal” to overly demanding observers lies the desire to question, to shake up the status quo.
- A larger version of this piece was published in PopMatters. Exhibition catalog. Canale Díaz Art Center, July, 2016.
- Barragán, Paco. An Actor at the White House. Politics, Celebrity and Popular Culture. Exhibition catalog. Area: Lugar de proyectos. Caguas, Puerto Rico, 2013.
- Bauman Zigmunt, Intimations of Postmodernity. New York: Routledge, 1992.
- Foster, Hal, The First Pop Age. Princeton University Press, 2012.
“PopMatters” is on view at Canale Díaz Art Center through the end of September 2016. 146 Madeira Avenue. Coral Gables, FL 33134 | Phone: 786 615 2622 | www.canalediaz.com | firstname.lastname@example.org
Raisa Clavijo is a curator, historian and art critic. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of the magazines ARTPULSE and ARTDISTRICTS.