By Alexandra Fanning
Pop art and its dissection of consumerist society is seemingly at a crossroads with the very thing that it attempts to ridicule. What has happened to make the art world fall head-over-heels for slogans, childhood characters and brand names?
Financial crises, wars on terror, revolutions and an obesity epidemic; it was only fitting that art join the bandwagon and regress into Armageddon-like imagery and yearning for the innocence of childhood. This is my interpretation of the recent boom of interest in pop art and its easily decipherable, easily digestible format.
Advertising has somehow turned itself into an art form with the introduction of galleries such as Showcase in Darlinghurst, who cater for advertising creatives need to display their work. We know that surviving as an artist is difficult and many look towards the creative industries for work, however, the two represent polar opposites within the framework of society. While art attempts to inspire thought and contemplation, advertising encourages us to purchase items we do not need. We understand this distinction, however, for some reason we have chosen to ignore it. With television programs such as The Gruen Transfer and Mad Men, we have developed some understanding of how advertising works to manipulate us. This fascination with the industry has provoked many to question its methods.
Recently I attended an exhibition at NG Gallery of well-known hyper-realist painter Nick Stathopoulos. Aptly named Toy Porn 2, the larger than life paintings depicted such pop-cultural icons as Tintin, Batman and Astro Boy in classical still-life compositions. Interestingly Stathopoulos has worked for the animation giant’s Hanna Barbera and Disney as a background artist and we can see where his absolute obsession with media-related toys stems from.
These images of popular characters immediately produce memories of childhood and the innocence associated with those carefree days. The name Toy Porn 2 is fitting in this sense, these toys hold fetishist qualities as collectables, and to some, toy catalogues are reminiscent of ‘hardware porn’ magazines directed at DIY experts. The nostalgic escapism implicit in Stathopoulos’ work makes the viewers’ role interesting. There is a seemingly ‘safe’ feeling associated with these images. We know what they depict and we are overcome with nostalgia, understanding comes easily. There is no struggle here, no challenge or historical background in which you must have some understanding. In fact there is nothing much at all beyond the beautifully rendered images offering up childlike joy. These characters almost beckon us not to forget them.
I find myself wondering how many viewers of these works, upon leaving the gallery, decided to purchase some form of paraphernalia from their childhood due to their nostalgic experience. Is this where the art world and advertising seemingly collide, are we inviting consumer culture into the white space of the gallery?
I am not saying that Stathopoulos intended to feed subliminal consumerist messages to his audience; merely suggesting that, just by depicting these universal characters and producing this emotive reaction, Stathopoulos has unknowingly (or knowingly) tapped into our consumerist desires.
Using the signs and symbols of the ever-churning commercial machine, could in fact cause the artists work and message to lose its effect among the whirlwind of logos, slogans and brand names. Our eyes are attracted to the bright colours and flashy print that somehow mesmerize us and cause us to purchase impulsively. This may be one of the reasons that we flock to openings of exhibitions that deal with advertising and branding culture: for the exciting colours and in-your-face imagery.
In opposition to the cuddly images of memory and childhood, Sydney based artist Ben Frost aims to disturb and incite controversy through explosions of consumer branding and Disney characters. Using ready-made imagery, reinterpreting it and creating controversial juxtapositions, he aims to critique our media and advertising obsessed society. His work reflects a world in trouble. However, this attempt to use mainstream media against itself seemingly runs into problems. Instead of interrupting the branding imagery and therefore its message, he simply slaps the brand name onto his canvas alongside others, creating a hyped-up version of the thousands of ads we are subjected to every day.
Frost also has a penchant for dropping favourite childhood characters into this jumble of advertising, usually in unnatural and grotesque scenarios.
Recently Frost ran into trouble regarding his image White Children Playing; Late 1900’s, depicting children preparing and injecting drugs, leading me to question whether he has considered the moral and ethical implications of his work being displayed publicly. I hate to sound like The Simpson’s Helen Lovejoy but ‘will somebody please think of the children?’ What do we think children who watch these television shows and use these products will take away from an image of Snow White poking her eyeball out or Peter Rabbit being strangled by his mother. And although not entirely intended towards children, the use of popular icons may attract a young audience.
Another artist to represent and re-represent advertising and branding materials is the Australian born neo-expressionist pure pop painter Johnny Romeo. Romeo’s work considers the ways in which we construct our identities from the imagery that contemporary media and consumer society immerses us in. He explains our inabilities to deal with the overwhelming chaotic envelope that society enforces, in a kind of ‘can’t cope culture’. His method is to rediscover, re-identify and provoke the brightly coloured, pulsating energy of consumerism: in other words, to remake them in oil paint.
Romeo’s work does just as much re-interpretation as Frost’s and again we see the same tired old slogans for Kraft and Coca-Cola, and again the motifs of comic book heroism and clever advertising slogans. Romeo does identify the long-standing affair that many lovers of comic books and action hero TV shows keep long into their lives, however, his work does not reach further than that.
The consumerist and pop cultural references do not stop with the pop art of the gallery scene today, but also spread across the graffiti and urban spectrum of the art world. This has to be where the current explosion of pop art has stemmed from, a recent influx of interest in urban artists. This in turn was most likely started (for our generation) by Banksy and others like him.
Melbourne-based artist Anthony Lister uses the pop-cultural references of comic books, superheroes and mass media in his work. However, with an abstraction that subverts the original meaning and message, he plays with the absurdity of consumerism and the humour to be found in the contradictions of our everyday lives. Fragments of Spongebob and Yoda, Batman and Wonder Woman, enmesh together producing anamorphous figures, indistinct to anything commercial and acquiring a life of their own.
Lister doesn’t airbrush the plastic world of advertising by copying it; he explores his own reactions to our consumerist society and how it engages us in a rush with a bombardment of imagery. Inspired by the high-gloss, high-impact characters that have compelled pop artists for decades, his painting method allows such slippage of the images to reform the mainstream, to reshape, stretch, fold and liquefy the easily digestible or the common. He has been referred to as a post-pop artist and congratulated for his avoidance of the simple rehabilitation present in the work of Frost and Romeo. Lister is the kind of artist that we need more of. His work is empowering in this time of unrest and uncertainty. His superheroes are not the perfect shiny figures we are used to, they are real. They have their dents and mutant misshapen proportions and this brings them down to our level. Lister’s work makes the very real statement that ‘even superheroes have a weakness’.
As artists start having to brand themselves, it is only fitting that they attempt to understand what drives the consumer market. The uncertain future and fears in relation to global matters have made us think of a nostalgic past, of candy bars, superheroes and consuming entertainment with joy. It has been said that with fear comes regression. Fear of a dying planet, fear of looming depression and fear of the future could be seeing us investing in the items that bring us the most comfort. Is it the superheroes that saved us, the products that comforted or the fact that we can have them all on a wall in our home?