Pop Art at the Sonoma County Museum
May 23, 2015
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“Andy Warhol to Kara Walker: Picturing the Iconic”
Sonoma County Museum, Santa Rosa, CA
April 12-May 24, 2015
Now that my teaching duties have wrapped up for the spring semester I took the opportunity this past week to view the current exhibit at the Sonoma County Museum. I was lucky to see this show in its final days as many of the artists and pieces are difficult to view in any one place at one time outside of a major collection such as the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For a small venue like the Sonoma County Museum to put on a show of this scope (thanks to the loaned artwork of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation) is quite a coup and the body of work amassed is impressive.
While the show is not quoted as such, this is ostensibly a “Pop Art” collection of imagery. While a few of the more recent artists such as Kara Walker float outside of that categorization, the themes and lineup of artists are strictly within the milieu of said genre. The entire original band was represented: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Ruscha and Oldenburg amongst others. While I myself am not an acolyte of the late Andy Warhol I did enjoy his series of classic soup cans as I had never before had the opportunity to see more than one of them displayed together in a single showing. The quality of the silkscreening is superb and the metallic luster of the tops of the cans is a feature that grants these seemingly generic typological objects a presence in the gallery that is lost in media such as the book or online.
Another pairing of graphic works that I found curious were architectural blueprints created by Mark Bennett in 1997. These lithographs detailed the floor plans of the fictional homes of Genie from I Dream of Genie and The Flintstones respectively. The Genie diagram included both an overhead layout and an exterior elevation of the lamp that houses the single chamber dwelling within. I was bemused that while there are several couches and areas where one might relax and lounge away the long periods of inactivity that accompany the genie lifestyle, there was no inclusion of a sink or any “toilette”. I guess we are not meant to go that deep as casual viewers. The abode of the Flintstones was more detailed and complex in its mapping of the famous cartoon’s living quarters. I thought these pieces rather clever in how they appropriated the traditional pop culture subject matters of the larger movement but also added more of a witty commentary and personal flare than the often cold and objective treatment granted by artists such as Jeff Koons or Richard Prince. Speaking of Prince, who has recently been selling enlarged screen shots of Instagram user’s postings in galleries for upwards of six figures, one can trace how the evolution of Pop Art blended with the conceptual priorities of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s American art scene and led to, along with other more fertile territories, the intellectual and cultural wasteland represented by millionaire garbage artists such as Koons, Prince, Richard Pettibone and British contemporaries like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emins. These individuals are the unfortunate afterbirth of an unctuous system of reciprocal art world fellatio that has seen record prices commanded for artifacts of increasingly poor and sophomoric tastes. It was my specific displeasure to spy a photographic representation of Koon’s infamous Michael Jackson and Bubbles sculpture included in the show. I dared not linger too long in viewing it as I could sense my brain cells cannibalizing themselves in response to the optical stimuli I had unintentionally inflicted upon them.
Ending on a brighter (yet topically more serious) note, the exhibit culminated in works by more recent artists such as David Levinthal and Kara Walker. While Walker’s oeuvre is stylistically appropriate to the company it finds itself in, her silhouetted stage plays related to the history of slavery and racism in the United States are by far the strongest social commentaries featured in the show. The great majority of the exhibition relies on strictly aesthetic or tongue in cheek references to the image and media culture we have become so saturated by over the past half century, but Walker’s pictures harken back to not only an older period (antebellum America) but also utilize the stark convention of her silhouetted figures to force the audience into a confrontation with its nation’s history and morality. This is a fitting finale to a collection of images that at first aim to only aestheticize the residue of mass media and entertainment and progress towards art as an intervention of social conscience and contemplation.