in Frieze | 06 JAN 95
Featured in
Issue 20

Myth and Man

'Black Male...' at the Whitney

in Frieze | 06 JAN 95

Rick's Café Americain, circa the endlessly smouldering twilight of the 20th century. It's a typical evening at this popular underground cabaret, an enormous warehouse space which juggles a variety of recreations - assorted 12-step meetings, political fundraisers, S/M mud wrestling - each attended by a clientele of off-duty bureaucrats and black marketeers, ordinary civilians by day who retreat here after hours to tour the more shady side of their double lives, to seek out fellow informants, spooks, missing kids, contacts with whom they can share some decaf, swap confessions. Actually, the only thing this crowd ever really shares is the void they feel dominating their existence, which is why they sit so inert, silent, the slack in their attention getting picked up by the rock steady beat of the Lee Atwater Experience, the nightly entertainment, with Axl Rose's banshee vocals politely complimented by Bubba Clinton's lugubrious saxophone, the band's heart-rending covers barely audible over the sound of army gunboats etching French curves overhead. Nightlife during wartime. Occasionally celebrities will parade through the rapt mob like decorated officers, the Leisure State's finest. The buzz tonight is over leading man Rush Limbaugh, dressed as Sidney Greenstreet, inspecting newcomer talent in a corner booth. 'It's funny,' a whisper wafts like contraband cigarette smoke from out of the shadows, 'how people so hungry for the meaningfulness they've had stolen from their lives will deem almost anything fit for their cultural consumption, even the most oppressive, craven ideology. Pause. 'Especially the most craven ideology.'

In a model of grace under pressure, the walls of this nightmare oasis are spruced up with an impressive assortment of fine art: brooding expressionist corporate logos next to portraits of government officials and comic book heroes, a calendar pin-up girl or stricken poster boy thrown in here and there, all hung in rows like autographed mug shots in a deli, the death masks of a self-hating, collaborationist culture. What an all-star line up! INSOMNIAC, PESSIMIST, COMEDIAN, AMNESIAC, HYPOCRITE. Of the lot, it's safe to say those works by Christopher Wool best capture the club's trademark atmosphere of clenched-teeth bravado and vampire charm, each an uncanny likeness of howling poverty charading as regal austerity. His is a gangster aesthetic: grim, business-like, poker-faced, blunt. Yet despite their impersonal, all-caps delivery, Wool's flat declarations harbour a trace of insincerity, hesitation, even panic, as if lurking behind their tight-lipped facades were something like a wink, a tip-off to viewers of some colossal unfolding scam. This is art with a gun in its back.

Which only means Wool's paintings address a universal experience - that familiar feeling of being interrogated and blackmailed. PRANKSTER, CHAMELEON, TERRORIST, SPOKESMAN. A portrait of the con artist as a young man. Wool approaches his subjects with a nasty blend of defensiveness and aggression, as if with each painting he were entering into a cutthroat deal, quick to point the finger at suspicious behaviour, introducing us to characters we both easily recognise and feel terribly uneasy being around. The resulting body of work evokes a cross between a social gathering and the F.B.I.'s most wanted list. It's a composite picture of human relations in a world organised around exploitation, in which trust and intimacy have all but disappeared, having been hounded into the most remote crevices of private experience, leaving guardedness and paranoia as the leitmotifs of all exchange, in which every conversation follows the course of a petty swindle, as secrets are no longer shared but bought and sold, acts which themselves constitute a form of self-betrayal. Are we having fun yet?

Forget about trying to pin down the source of this racket, to isolate its operations and smoke out its henchmen - it's hegemonic, synonymous with our Darwinian political economy, and has the entire snarling system poised at its disposal. But you can still define what kind of effect it registers, how it intrudes on experience, extorts a percentage, leaves behind an absence. Shallowness, emptiness, inadequacy - these are the signifiers of dispossession that say it all for us, summing up life as we're allowed to only vaguely know it. Every spark-producing instance of commingling, interaction and merger has been invaded and colonised, reorganised into a sprawling network of divisions and separations, chasms into which the fluid give-and-take of social life collapses, only to have resurrected in its place a reified likeness, to be converted into an autonomously controlled inventory of name-brand personality disorders, self-help programmes and chart-topping pathologies. These all seem to relate more to one another than to us, mere talk show fodder, painted-on tears and service economy smiles locked in a battle for higher ratings. Thus social experience gets cloaked in the same mystery as that of the commodity - appearing from one side as something we produce yet sell, from the other as something we're estranged from yet desire. Seduction shrivels under these terms into an empty promise, a lie which benefits not sender nor receiver but rather some anonymous third party, a mediator, manager, profiteer. And yet this system captivates us all the same, holding in our view (but out of our reach) our sense of who and where we are in the world, keeping us in a state of perpetual anticipation, like a horizon line above which things never appear more than half way. A world that never turns, in which we go nowhere.

Along with everything else, art too has been caught up in this interminable runaround between production and consumption, only it boasts a certain prestige, operating on the level of something like a shuttle diplomat. As Herbert Read tells it in his 1953 book Art and Industry, the Cops-and-Robber Barons of yore, the manufacturers who ran mid-19th century English society, developed their appreciation for fine art in reaction to disappointing sales figures. Having focused too narrowly on perfecting machinery ('a monster', Read scolds, 'devouring raw materials at one end and turning out at the other the finished article') these businessmen pondered whether the excesses and indulgences they were so intent on eradicating from the assembly line couldn't in fact be made to serve their interests after all. 'The finished article must appeal to the potential purchaser by its elegance, its decoration, and its colour. Art, the capitalists of that age already realised, was a commercial factor.' What people were denied at the workplace, where they were treated as an animated slabs of meat, energy sources to be strip-mined, the marketplace promised to restore - but at a price. And so art, being identified with the human capacity for delectation, appreciation, reflection, with our tastes and satisfactions, in turn provided the ideal bait for the two-bit solicitations, the hustling and con games of commodification (or, as a 1988 painting by Wool comments on this collapsing together of aesthetic gratification and salesmanship, 'Please, please, please, please, please, please'). This, then, is art's job in the new social order: tutoring industry on how to sell consumers the pleasures they are forbidden to produce for themselves.

Smelling a rat, artists over the years have refused to be bought out by such a contract. Especially in the US, a typical response has been to sever all links between art and leisure, blinding it to everything save the world of work. this was the approach of artists such as Thomas Eakins and Robert Henri, of the critic Thomas Craven in his book Men of Art, of the painter/illustrator John Sloan, friend of Duchamp while both lived in Greenwich village, who once described the American artist as 'the unwanted cockroach in the kitchen of frontier society.' Abstract Expressionists were particularly anxious about their paintings' consumption, cursing the idea of 'public acceptance', vilifying the uncaring and under-equipped eyes that constituted their audience. 'Their isolation is inconceivable, crushing, unbroken, damning,' screeched Clement Greenberg of the self-exiled New York School, as the ranks of post-war consumer society swelled around them. 'What can 50 do against 150 million?' Nothing, presumably, except resign themselves to toiling anonymously in their studios, their microfactories, going about producing a sense of themselves no longer within society but in isolation from it.

These artists, though, have enjoyed more than ample consolation - namely, the pre-eminence, the immutable authority that the dominant ideology bestows upon labour in its binary opposition to leisure. 'We have to simply, calmly, methodically reassert American civilisation,' conspires recently anointed cultural Commissar Newt Gingrich, 'And I believe that starts with the work ethic.' Circulated on every level of society, this belief system dictates that the satisfactions gleamed during free time are ultimately hollow, guilt-ridden, even punishable. Real, honest gratification is never immediate, only delayed; true happiness is gained through commitment and career. In the end, sacrifice is held up as the ultimate pleasure.

Wool's images, with their strict formal economy and stoic personae, actually share a certain family resemblance to the output of at least one of Action Painting's dedicated workaholics, Franz Kline. But Wool musters none of Kline's signature individualismo; on the contrary, his paintings are damaged, not ennobled, by their loneliness - by turns ingratiating, deceitful, pleading, they seem desperate for, yet incapable of, companionship. At the same time, because of their mode of address, their hectoring, they also evoke the consumer come-ons of Pop art, looking like unenhanced, unmentholated versions of Robert Indiana's graphic designs, even like some of Andy Warhol's factory-made titillations (party animal Wool seems particularly schooled in Warhol's 1962 Dance Diagram). There's a sense in which day-labourer Kline and adman Indiana can be seen to join forces in Wool's art, to bring together an inward concern for the self and an outgoing knack for promotion. And yet theirs ends up a thoroughly unhappy union - each stands as the other's bad conscience. As rendered by Wool, the result of their collaboration are representations of a desperate, vulgar kind of self-promotion; depictions of selling out.

Tellingly, when Wool's floral, wallpaper-like imagery is taken into consideration, the ancestry of his work seems to extend back most directly to the craftworks and visual diaries of 70s feminist art, and beyond that to the handmade books and textiles of the late-19th century Arts and Crafts Movement. For the artists in these movements, as for Wool, the handmade object stands as a symbol of the interconnection between private and professional life, toil and leisure, art and utility, mind and matter. But the aspiration of such art then - to mend a subjectivity that had been unequally divided - Wool now renders as a bad debt, a promise his art can't make good on. Stencilled and stamped onto aluminium supports that, unlike canvas, have no sense of touch, that can't absorb, can't breathe in, Wool's ornamentation remains blatantly prosthetic, an applied art. Like cosmetic surgery, it's an inadequate compensation, restrictive rather then expressive, paralytic rather then flowing.

Perhaps this explains the sickness that seems to incapacitate Wool's paintings: the fact that they harbour a once empowering idealism gone totally rancid. Harking back in confused reverence to both the rigid 50s and the recreational 60s, Wool's art gets twisted by the same contradictions that lie at the stone heart of our post-Reagan era. Reaganism, after all, is not so much a denial of the consumer culture that blossomed like so many plastic flowers around mid-century; rather it's a rehabilitation of it, a nip-and-tuck job in the style of Frankenstein's monster. Its premise isn't that the controlled consumption of the 60s was entirely evil, just that it wasn't controlled enough. The surplus value that brought new shoppers into the expanded marketplace gave the mistaken impression that there was enough of everything for everyone, leading people to indulge wild ideas - about free time, free love, free spirits; in short, unlimited abundance and instant gratification. Something like the work ethic had to be re-established. Unemployment had to be allowed to rise so that shit jobs would be coveted rather than spat on; social programmes were cut back and underfunded so as to open up pockets of need everywhere. Most importantly, abundance had to be replaced by debt, which, in the place of earnings, became what everyone, from government to business to private citizens, consumed on. Surplus want and fear now washes over the culture like a cold sweat, policing desire and enforcing obedience; and we as cultural subjects are made to feel like indentured servants, at once bitter and grateful, because of our participation in the service economy - bitter that our pleasures are so hard to come by, grateful that they can still be had at all.

Wool's paintings return to the Pop landscape if only to discover how much things have changed over the intervening years. Not that the overriding sense of deceit is anything new - the best of Pop always managed to register the lie of consumerism, how private consumption could only allow us to envision but never actually attain membership within communities bound by tastes, preferences, passions. Today, though, the commodity no longer needs to beckon with the false promise of community - it has found a more effective means of persuasion through straightforward terrorism. As Wool captures in his film noir remakes, consumer society is now blanketed in pessimism, distrust, fatalism, shaky allegiances and petty motives. What's worse, even the moral self-reliance that girded the Philip Marlow-like protagonists of film noir - and that gave painters such as Franz Kline their sense of anchoring - has been revealed as no more than an arrogant delusion, another lie. The choice offered to consumers today is as simple as noir's black and white: either one takes or gets taken. That, as they say, is showbiz.

The director yells cut; the scene grinds to a halt. Another take. The camera zooms in on an untitled painting from 1989, made up by Wool to look rugged yet elegant, like Bogart in Casablanca, dressed in an imperial tux (or is it a prison uniform?), illuminated as if by a harsh spotlight. We are about to witness an interrogation; we are about to be entertained. The artwork tries to articulate some final observations on the current sorry state of consumer affairs. Its message seems heartfelt, the wording precise and deliberate - just two letters, each pronounced twice: 'HA,' then 'AH'. Combined here are the simple sounds of human wonder and appreciation, the picture appearing to gasp in recognition and delight. And yet no matter how many times you read it, it fumbles its delivery of the line, choking on whatever emotion it's trying to express, a grimace interrupting its look of surprise. It seems a joke has been played, a punchline reached. But the tension in the air only grows thicker. Confused, desperate, the painting in the end can't make up its mind whether it should laugh or cry.