Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Robots, Yes! Agit-Prop, No!

What’s not to like about Pop Surrealism? It’s fresh. It’s funny. It’s unpretentious. It’s composed of the visual language which surrounds us – comic books, cartoons, tattoos, advertising, etc. - yet it twists these images around in strange, haunting and sometimes frightening ways. It often shows more intelligence and technical skill (many of the artists are self-taught) than so-called mainstream art. And its appeal is immediate and visceral.

What I enjoy most about it is the supreme confidence of the artists. They really don’t care what you think of them. I get the impression that they paint only for themselves and their like-minded friends. Walk into any mainstream gallery and you are surrounded by paintings and sculptures which practically scream for the approval of the artist’s teachers or of her granting authorities or corporate purchasers or of the critics or of pseudo-intellectual hangers-on, etc. There is no sense of the playfulness that, one assumes, first made this person want to become an artist. But walk into a Pop Surrealism gallery and you see work which, in its playfulness and sense of fun, testifies to the artists’ whole-hearted commitment and engagement in their work. And there's something very invigorating in that.

Like all art, though, it can be done well or it can be done poorly; and a current exhibit at Roq la Rue has specimens of both. Brian Despain does it very well; Victor Castillo does not.

Castillo’s subject seems to be the hollowness of contemporary, mainly American, culture. His paintings feature children with cartoonish faces, empty eyes (to symbolize “blindness, insanity and dehumanization” we are told in the program notes) and bright red hot-dog-shaped noses (to symbolize “cannibalism” ?!). Malevolent grinning figures, often from pop culture – Goofy, Santa Claus (in “Lie to Me”, right), etc. – menace them. It is all very overwrought, full of bitterness and self-righteous sarcasm. Castillo is from Chile and so it is understandable, given the US’s murderous political meddling in that country, that he would find evil and nightmare in the symbols of American pop culture. But this political anger, however justified, cripples his art. In fact, I get the impression that Castillo really hates pop culture. It’s a lie, in his opinion, a grinning happy face which masks the jack-booted thug beneath. So why he has chosen to paint in the style of Pop Surrealism (which in his case should be called Agit-Prop Surrealism) is beyond me. The combination of his message and the style with which he chooses to express it will always prove unhappy.

Brian Despain, on the other hand, knows exactly what he’s doing. His small mini-show contains portraits of robots. These paintings are quite beautiful. Each robot is delicately rendered and the colors (mostly browns, yellows and silvers) are dark and lush. The robots even seem to have their own personalities. I especially liked "Ghosts" (below). The central figure leaves a strong impression of pride and even defiance. If he’s on, that is. The plug dangling from his left hand makes us unsure. Is he unplugged and dreaming of being automated like the wind-up robots circling his head or is he still on (after all, his eyes are lit up) but now free from his reliance on a power source? And if so, is that a good thing? And the background isn’t very reassuring, is it? Often Despain’s robots are standing in fields with dark clouds gathering behind them, creating a powerful feeling of foreboding and even melancholy. For some reason, robots are often depicted as figures of sadness. On many sci-fi novel covers they stare off wistfully and forlornly into the distance. I’m not sure why this is so. It is true that we depict them as soulless killers, too, but that ambivalence just makes our relationship to them more interesting. Clearly, we can’t stand the idea that a robot would be as uninteresting as most humans. We simply will not accept hum-drum robots. We can imagine them as time-traveling killing machines, but never as bores or dullards or snobs or that drip from the office who tells you endless stories about his latest trip to Thailand.

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