In approaching the exhibition “Underground Pop” at the Parrish Museum in Southampton one needs to be cognizant of the fact, much as culture itself has changed since the birth of pop art in the 1960’s, so too have the definitions of Pop Art itself.
First coined by critic Lawrence Alloway to describe a movement that celebrated the rampant consumerism of the post-war world, Pop Art rejected Abstract Expressionism and its self-reverential emphasis on an emotional and psychological focus and instead was perceived as blindly worshipping the iconography of the emerging consumer culture. Characterized by an unapologetic measure of decorativeness emphasizing flat areas of unmodulated color bound by hard edges and highly centralized compositional structure, Pop Art was seen as delving into areas of popular taste previously considered outside the purview of fine art. Venerating the increasing spread of corporate marketing through western culture, Pop Art’s ultimate inspiration lay not within the artist’s unique vision but rather to take commerce itself as the dominant theme of artistic examination. As Alloway noted, Pop Art is essentially “an art about signs and sign systems.”
In “Underground Pop”, however, while elements of Pop’s use of imagery drawn from consumerism are still apparent, the manner in which they are used reflect the artists’ apparent rejection of aspects of mass culture as much as they are also drawn to it as inescapable components of contemporary existence. Further, in the underlying psychological tensions present in many of the works exhibited as well as the varied painterly approaches that embody schools as diverse as geometric abstraction, Expressionism, and Surrealism, the artists are apparently striving to actually move beyond the structural and dogmatic pressures of Pop Art itself while not completely divorcing themselves from it.
This actually places this exhibition not necessarily within the realm of Pop, but instead closer to what Andreas Huyssen described as Postmodernism in his series of essay’s titled “The Great Divide” in which art reflects the absorption of both popular materialist idioms as well as illustrating avant-garde modernism’s inherent aversion and skepticism to the superficiality of mass culture in and of itself. Within the Postmodern paradigm, and which is illustrated in the Parrish exhibit, this reflects Huyssen’s observation that as Pop Art has evolved, it has transcended mere veneration of materialist impulses and, instead, “is interpreted dialectically as both an affirmative and critical art” thereby acknowledging the impact of our consumer culture while nevertheless simultaneously also respecting modernism’s differentiation between high art and low culture.
This is particularly apparent in Cole Case’s “The Ramones; Judy is a Punk” (oil on canvas mounted on panel, 2008) which pictures the Hollywood graveyard where two of the members of the iconic punk band are buried but which is less an homage than a serene landscape with imagery that is delicately arranged and echoing Magritte in its gentle solitude. Using textural elements to enhance the bucolic sense of solitude in the impasto treatment of the trees and incised swirls on the headstones, there are aspects of Philip Guston in the anthropomorphic arrangement of forms as well as a gentle surreal atmosphere that is reminiscent of Rene Magritte or Paul Delveaux’s dreamlike reveries.
Surrealist impulses are also apparent in Scott Anderson’s “Declaration” (oil on canvas mounted on board, 2008-2009) although the tenor here is decidedly less pastoral and significantly more edgy in terms of imagery and ambiance. Highly reminiscent of Salvador Dali in the strangely fantastic figures and the startling use of space in the sky and landscape in the distance, the work is dynamically arresting in the manner the artist highlights the painting’s extremely ambiguous narrative.
Kristin Morgin, on the other hand, might be more indicative of Pop Art impulses if one were to solely go by titles such as “Captain America” (unfired clay, wood, paint, and wire, 2005) or “Mighty Mouse (unfired clay, wood, and twine, 2006) and ignore their physical decay and existential angst that are more an indictment of the degeneracy’s within mass culture than an exaltation of them.
Also featured in the exhibition “Underground Pop” at the Parrish Museum in Southampton are works by Brian Bress, James Gobel, Michael Lazerus, Nathan Mabry, Jeni Spota, and Leia Jervert. The exhibit continues through October 3.