Sometimes I hate my friends. Like right after the release of Pokémon Go. Nearly every single one of them not only downloaded the dang thing, but actually used it in public. In broad daylight. In front of other people. Meeting up for a drink at the bar turned into scavenging the streets for more bars with more Pokémons. This had to be an ironic thing that my pals would forget after a day or two, I assumed. But after weeks of this nihilistic nonsense, I was feeling like so many of the little things that make life tolerable had been invaded by an army of tiny, mind-numbing jerks. Pokémon Go seemed like a harbinger of the kind of voluntary sedation that could become the norm in response to some scary stuff from above. So maybe Oliver Stone came across as just slightly insane when he likened Pokemon Go to “totalitarianism,” but I kind of agree with him. Pokemon Go feels like nothing less than a small, but important sign of the coming cultural apocalypse.
So I felt something like a mix of loathing and excitement when I opened an invitation to an art show at Castor Gallery called the The 3D Basil Never Wilts and found a faux lawn sprawling out before me, which had been taken over by a mob of Pikachus– some seated, others toppled over– tubby and apparently giggling, as if they were hitting various states of food coma following a picnic.
In person, the room was equally catatonic, a greed astroturf-colored rug speckled with store-bought potted orchids still clinging to support sticks and tangled in faux moss, those definitely-gonna-die-soon accessories that make mass produced plants so sad. Even the colors felt weirdly TV-like, from the Trix Rabbit-approved exploding-grape-flavored purple flowers, to the throbbing neon-sign yellow of the Pikachu’s coat, and the gristly green “grass.” The place pulsed with a feeling of cold commercial replicability and bloodless joy– like, you would be worried about a friend who felt inspired enough by the Pikachus’ uniform gleeful expression to smile back.
But after a longer look at the turf, it started to read as familiar. And for good reason– I realized that I wipe my feet on that rug every day. Because I own it. It’s a stellar piece of Nordic design that, along with each and every item included in the installation, you can find at your neighborhood IKEA, aka the ultimate purveyor of bourgeoisie mirages that portend domestic contentment and freedom from the anxieties of modern life. As we all know, IKEA purchases turns out to be nothing more than cheap plastic furniture and particle board monstrosities that could crush your skull if an allen wrench goes rogue.
With The 3D Basil Never Wilts, Michael Pybus, the curator has put together a very crafty show that’s all about the internet and capitalism– two things that define life in the West (and most of the world, thanks to globalization) right now. While both these forces are at some level working in tandem to streamroll culture into a smooth stick of commercially-viable chewing gum, the internet is still a relatively anarchic place so, best case scenario, it can be a playground for artists, political activists, and anyone who might be silenced in the public realm. (All of this, of course–depends on fast, cheap–or better yet, free– internet access for all.)
But in order to make interesting art about the internet in this post-internet age of ours– art that is politically informed and actually relevant–we gotta move past the predictable stuff like web-1.0-as-irony, and abstract emphasis on form that leaves us with ethereal baubles and shapeshifting, geometric CGI trinkets. Pybus has done the step-forward thing instead of side-stepping, in tapping socially-aware artists who make work that clearly indicates that they, like us, are residents of an increasingly digital world.
The really crazy part is that you won’t find a screen at the show. Each and every work is manifested IRL, which calls attention to the continuing existence of 2D and 3D art/life, but outlines a fourth dimension that art can occupy. It’s whatever you’d call the necessarily-IRL digital experience, something that any visitor of the show will have to step inside.
Back at the gallery, the gallery girl saw me standing at the edge of the lawn. “Feel free to step inside and have a look around,” she said. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized these Pikachus and the cheap flowers were mirrored above in a series of paintings by Pybus, with names like “PWF Lilac” and “PWF Gold”– dead-on appropriations of the Andy Warhol flower prints, only Pikachu’s goofy face pops out at you rudely. (See what I mean about invasion?) The Pikachu joke is a good one on its own, but since the paintings glow under blacklight, Pybus has essentially made the whole thing into a college dorm room poster. Which, if you think about it, is a natural place to be for Andy Warhol at this point, whose pop art renderings of appropriated ad images and celebrity icons have become so banal to the point of cliché, and are often replicated by corporations as a selling points for cheap products. (The “Billabong X Warhol” corporate-clusterfucked swimsuit line is the most twisted example I’ve seen recently.)
Down the ways were a group of four oil paintings by Huey Crowley, rendered in bold colors with even bolder content. One depicts the Teletubbies standing out front of the Marcy projects, cock-hipped and twisty-handed, posing gangster-like for the camera– if you weren’t clear on this already, the title “Teletubbies Bring Joy to the Marcy Projects” ensures that something strange is going on here.
Then again, think about Donald Trump’s plans to cut $10.5 trillion from the budget would be a catastrophe for, well, almost everyone besides the military industrial complex– but it would also eliminate support for childcare programs, and deliver a deadly blow to NYCHA which provides public housing like the Marcy Houses. Trump’s plan would also threaten the existence of public broadcasting, which means “Teletubbies,” programming that’s good for both developing kids and parents who need a break, would go bye-bye.
Crowley’s painting of Mr. Peanut sticking out of the roof of the Peanut Mobile as part of the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade while dabbing, offers an insane layer cake of meaning– it’s a rendering of what could be seen as a stab at the corporate whitewashing of America, it’s also cultural appropriation reappropriated. And holy crap, it actually happened IRL (and, yes, I definitely needed to Know Your Meme this one). That means Crowley’s work gets another coat of frosting–as a touchable, tangible freeze-frame image taken from an online video seen by many millions of people all over the world, after the TV broadcast was already viewed by millions of people, and don’t forget the IRL event that was ogled by thousands. That’s a lot of eyes, and a sort of window-into-a-window infinite situation, especially if you think about it, the image takes on yet another life as it floats through cyberspace in this article and others.
Overall Crowley’s paintings bring attention, yes, to bizarro images like this one (which seem to be in huge supply these days), and the endless opportunities offered by the internet for appropriation, reappropriation, memeing, and miming. But more importantly, he’s interested in the complexities shared by media of all kinds, and the immense impact of images and moving pictures, which share immeasurable potential for shaping experiences and minds beyond the span of their 30-second, or 60-minute, or 9-hour length (OJ doc, seriously though).
At the downstairs level at at The 3D Basil Never Wilts things were a little more self-referential, as artists called out art-making and art perspectives by using a similar aesthetic to digital art that’s left wanting– those glowing CGI orbs and serene animations that toy with trigonometric forms we might have never known existed. Sure, it’s beautiful stuff, but aggressively meaningless, almost to the point of serving some sort of totalitarian mission to distract civilians, and hypnotize them into supine sedation and drooling apathy. Truly, reaching a state like this should be at the very bottom of our things-to-try list especially right now, right under getting a membership punchcard at the sensory deprivation spa. At “3D Basil” those familiar bits of lame geometry were flattened into 2D forms or blown up into 3D ones, and actually had purpose behind them.
Faina Brodksy’s watercolor painting, “New Party Palace HQ” offers a windswept view of what looks like some kind of Middle Eastern palace, that has reached a state of quiet destruction. There’s an unmistakably brooding red that looks as if blood has been smeared all over the walls– that, and the fact that the title sounds like a reference to Saddam Hussein’s party palace, which was discovered by American soldiers after the Iraqi invasion, makes this a pretty clear swipe at the harsh, and lasting reality of a popular news story that might have seemed like a sort of quirky detour during the war (aka another distraction).
Maybe I’m just always thinking about Furry porn after the first, and only time I saw it with my own eyes and was apparently marked for life by it, but Bradford Kessler’s sculpture piece, “Young Grandmother,” strikes me as furry-porn ready. If you’re not familiar with the genre, it’s usually dominated by animated sex acts performed by animals with either mythical or exaggerated anatomies, plus one thing you’re really not going to see in Saturday morning cartoons, anthropomorphized pee-pee parts and sometimes cyborg-like dongles. To each his/her own, I guess.
Kessler’s piece is definitely a vagina. Like, right? It has to be a virginia. It’s an unusual one, for sure– with waxy black braids and features that reminded me of those pre-human anthropod creatures you see in fossil displays at the museum. There’s also a sci-fi vibe to it, and invokes visions of what happened to Sigourney Weaver’s lady parts after she gave birth to alien babies in Alien. Kessler seems to be either critiquing Furry porn, but he’s probably just pointing to how society trains us to think and feel about vaginas in general (which probably gives rise to some of the Furry imaginings), which is to say hung-the-fuck-up.
So yeah, “3D Basil” was a depressing reminder that we’re probably gonna keep buying IKEA garbage out of desperation and convenience, and that Pokemon Go will probably take over the world at some point. (I mean, those dudes are doing a pretty good job so far of convincing everyone that it’s a revolutionary game connecting us in ways like never before and stuff like, “Wow! it really gets us off the couch and moving and maybe actually might be helpful for preventing diabetes!”) But the show also demonstrates the power of images, and stands by the notion that the internet offers a unique platform not only for individuals to criticize stuff like our political overlords and their unjust policies, mainstream lame livin’ and consumerism garbage, but a means of getting together and to stand by those images, especially the funny ones, which is self-empowerment itself.
“Garden Party” continues through Sunday, April 2.