Over and Out
The American Dream Dies—In London: Review of 'From the Vapor of Gasoline'
In the arresting works of sculptor Robert Grober, a dose of reality emerges from innocence.
LONDON—This takedown is more brutal and complete than anything you’ve seen in the ten months of indignant fury that followed the presidential election—as powerful as any anti-Trump screed on Twitter, Facebook or the OpEd pages of the New York Times.
At its Mason's Yard location in London, the White Cube has dedicated its whole gallery to viciously puncturing the American Dream.
Works by a dozen U.S. artists from the ‘60s to the ‘90s have been assembled in one place to make an overwhelming case against American exceptionalism. 'From the Vapor of Gasoline' showcases room after room of uncompromising critiques of the violence and perceived failures of the American republic.
The multi-disciplinary show features prints, sculpture, paintings and photographs, which are all linked by a blast of darkness. The curator insists that there is an underlying sense of optimism that pervades the works but it’s very well hidden at times.
In one of the arresting works by sculptor Robert Grober, a male leg—covered in real hair—wearing grey socks and sensible brown shoes is forced out of an unblemished vagina. Out of innocence emerges a dose of reality.
Just above the wax sculpture, a classic Christopher Wool enamel (Head, 1992) blares: ‘HOLE IN HEAD.’
Holes are one of the outstanding themes of the show: there are wounds, breaches and windows onto the real world.
A Steven Parrino acrylic superimposes handcuffs over what looks like an image of Dennis Hopper on his chopper in the Hollywood cult classic Easy Rider. The earlier works focus on the wicked suppression of parts of American society, the later ones showcase the constraints placed on ideas of real freedom.
Amid the metaphorical punctures, one of Larry Clark’s most arresting black and white photographs includes a real laceration. 'Accidental Gunshot Wound' (1971) shows a heavily bearded man in real pain after apparently shooting himself in the upper thigh by mistake. His companion is weeping; we see real sadness; real despair—all for no reason.
The show features a whole series of Clark’s images from the 1970s, which depict the dark side of his home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma, including the injection of hard drugs into bulging veins. Clark later found notoriety with his 1995 film Kids but he has been exploring some of the same themes—sexual exploration and teen drug abuse—for decades.
A 1981 brass plaque by Jenny Holzer has been installed opposite Clark’s portraits. It reads:
TO CUT A HOLE IN YOU
AND FUCK YOU
THROUGH IT, BUDDY
It’s a bold punch in the face, as brash and clear as if it had been forged this week.
The show also features some of the early work of New York artist Richard Prince. In the mid-‘80s he had a period of work in which he reproduced old jokes inked or painted on paper, canvas and other surfaces, including the back of a cassette tape box. One reads:
Jewish man talking to his friends:
“If I live I’ll see you Tuesday.
If I don’t I’ll see you Wednesday.”
Many of the works in the show have an air of melancholy, but Prince and the other artists here are also striving to deconstruct America’s traditional national self-image. “They adopted humor, appropriation and inauthenticity as strategies by which to challenge the ideologies inscribed within these [symbols of America] opening up the space between the authorized narratives of the United States and the dark histories they reveal,” says curator Mathieu Paris.
Decades after Prince was reinterpreting old jokes on new mediums, he began to do the same with Instagram images; re-working them; hanging them on the walls of galleries; and charging top dollar for collectors to buy them.
One of those collectors was Ivanka Trump. Prince was happy to take the Trump empire lucre until her daddy was elected president. In the days before Trump’s inauguration in January, Prince announced that he was returning the family’s money and denounced his own work as “fake art.”
While many of the artists featured in this show continue to work, the bulk of this work was created at least a quarter of a century ago. It still feels raw, and fresh in a gallery in 2017, but ultimately, the joke is on the artists.
The American Dream may have been punctured and wounded—not least by the creations of artists like them—but where are we now? In the ‘Make America Great Again’ era. Trump’s embrace of white supremacy, American exceptionalism and outright populism are worse than anything these artists could have envisioned for the 21 century White House.
'From The Vapor of Gasoline' is White Cube Mason's Yard, 25-26 Mason's Yard, London SW1, until October 21.