Horror Story: Eight Artists Engage with Mass Culture through Traumatic Imagery

October 25, 2014 through January 10, 2015

The idea for this show emerged from an ongoing interest in the idea of spectacle—specifically, Andy Warhol’s engagement with the subject. His Death and Disaster series embraced the horrific image to construct a commentary of historical trauma. Roger Kamholz wrote, “Warhol took the senseless tragedies of his time, ones that expressed the fractures and failures of the American dream, and presented them as history painting, in the tradition of grand, wrenching statements like Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819) and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937).”

Thinking more about this show and spectacle, I realized that in Aristotle’s outline of tragedy, spectacle is just one part of his thinking. “Horror Story” is really a show about the tragedy of violence.

1968 (detail) (300 dpi ; web)

Christopher Brown’s prints Continental and Flag are depictions of stills from the Zapruder film. Edgar Arceneaux’s etching 1968 depicts the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Brown uses cheesecloth on softground plate to create the look of a TV screen, and Arceneaux depicts the Starship Enterprise in the far distance of his image, making both interpretations feel a bit detached from the actual events. Arceneaux’s Beyond the Great Eclipse series depicts ephemera from the Watts riots of 1965. All of these tragedies continue to haunt our perceptions of the 1960s.

Brown Continental  Brown Flag

Examining the horrors of the slave trade, David Huffman’s print Remuneration, 2007, along with Radcliffe Bailey’s Passage Goe, 2011, are chilling portraits of the architecture built in order to traffic human beings.

Passage Goree       Remuneration

Perhaps it is the horror film genre that can best engage traumatic history and confront viewers with it. Gary Simmons’ All Work and No Play references Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. Simmons often uses metaphor and American popular culture to create works that address personal and collective experiences of race and class. In Kubrick’s film, there are several shots of Native American architecture, and the hotel is filled with Native American décor. The hotel, built on a sacred Indian burial ground, was haunted due to this desecration. Many theorize that the film is exploring the early American settlers’ exploitation and killing of the Native Americans.

All Work No Play

Again referencing film, Hernan Bas’ prints The Tenant and The Previous Tenant are images of the protagonist in Roman Polanski’s Film, Le Locataire, or The Tenant. The film explores the violence of the loss of privacy and the theme of victimization. Kota Ezawa’s prints Man and Woman and Stairs depict the scenes on the Odessa steps from the classic film Battleship Potemkin. The film terrifies the viewer with images of the brutal massacre of dozens of defenseless men, women, and children.

Bas and KJM

Lastly, Kerry James Marshall’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein address Mary Shelley’s classic novel and its racial resonances in the United States. Elizabeth Young, author of Black Frankenstein, states that “these Black Frankenstein stories effect four kinds of racial critique: they humanize the slave; they explain, if not justify, black violence; they condemn the slave owner; and they expose the instability of white power.” Again, Kerry James Marshall uses metaphor to explore the violence of slavery.

-Rhea Fontaine

Christopher Brown at John Berggruen Gallery

Christopher Brown continues to be a distinctly American artist. He depicts large and small scenes of life as it is lived, or partially remembered, in this country. Yet his scenes are grounded in one specific moment. Brown uses paint to allow for ambiguity and distance. Despite his masterful use of color, his pieces often feel cool. His interpretation of the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination is at least one layer removed from the event and so no longer as horrific. There have been bucolic backyard scenes, toy logs and farm animals, trains, and soldiers that stir memory but not passion. The imagery is highly personal to the artist’s life, yet accessible to many viewers because of its familiarity. The reworking of the paint, the smearing, smudging, and scraping, allows each viewer to build his or her own narrative around the frozen moments. Most of his work is representational, but no more prescriptive than the work of abstract artists.

Christopher Brown, Blue Road, 2011; Oil on linen; 30″ x 40″; Courtesy of the artist and John Berggruen Gallery

Each new show promises an examination, or sometimes reexamination, of imagery that holds special resonance for Brown. In the current exhibit at John Berggruen Gallery (through March 17), most of the paintings depict the near-ubiquitous weekend cycling tournament up a mountain (feels like Marin to me), the horse race from the unlikely view of someone behind the dirt kicked up by the animal’s hoofs, and a few stray images of ancient red coat soldiers, sailboats, and family trips to the snow.

Christopher Brown, Peloton, 2011; Oil on linen; 48″ x 60″; Courtesy of the artist and John Berggruen Gallery

In the recent cycling series, dozens and dozens of thin circles merge into a near abstraction, like Monet’s water lilies. Amidst the hard and monotonous work of pedaling up a mountain are the bright jerseys of the riders and friends and hundreds of shades of green hills. One jersey was worked so beautifully I thought it resembled a miniature Rothko. Brown captures the tension between the vulnerability of the hard-pumping rider on a thin machine and the steep and dangerous curve. Half a redcoat soldier walking in the mud is not grotesque, but like a partial memory. When focusing on a ship’s great billowing sails, swaths of paint look like an angel’s wing. But I was most drawn to a smaller piece entitled “Blue Road,” in which a family or group of friends has stopped along the road to entertain themselves with a snow fight. Instead of resembling mounds of white, the drifts recall the eerie blue of gigantic glaciers. Brown’s paintings can take you anywhere, even back to the ice age, but more likely to your own past.