I am a WACTAC alumni (Class of 2004) and have been hanging out with the council lately, sitting in on their meetings and helping out a bit with this blog. I tagged along last week as WACTAC had the opportunity to tour the International Pop show with co-curator Bartholomew Ryan.
The lauded exhibition displays a body of Pop art of the 1950’s through the 1970’s, with strong representations of artists and movements from Japan, Brazil and Germany, and some notable American works in the mix (Warhol and Lichtenstein, deified beacons of Pop, do secure a head count). While Pop art is often associated as a very American phenomenon, infatuated with consumer and product culture, this show admirably aims to decentralize the movement from some of its own celebrity actualizations. To explore the more worldwide representations and implications of this era of art and image is to review the second half of the 20th century as it unfolded in a reaction to a new globalism, a new discipline of expression made possible by more commonly accessible tools, products and ideas. Plastics, in a sense, making it possible.
“This is not about a style, its not about America, and its not about the claims of where Pop began, which aren’t all that interesting anymore,” curator Darsie Alexander is quoted as saying in the New York Times. “When you look back at the things that were being written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, everybody knew something incredibly new was going on in society with mass culture and images, and everybody was trying to find a way to describe it”.
Its easy enough for the millennial American mind to reduce the Pop art movement to soup cans and Marilyns. As easy still to reduce the second half of 20th Century’s history to post War America’s rise. But to engage looser lines of demarcation for Pop art as a genre and a discipline can help to more broadly define our global present. This exhibition takes place in a most germane time, drawing countless parallels between the social and political climates of the 1960’s and the present. WACTAC has been working on an event that will take place at the Walker tonight and has been exploring such themes of consumption and production, history and its impact on us, love and despair, antiheroes, intimacy and new realities. In their own ways each of these specified themes is addressed, either directly or indirectly in the International Pop show, and reveal themselves to have been at the forefront of a generational shift in art and youth culture.
I was hoping that the group would engage Mr. Ryan during the tour a bit more about these themes specifically but nonetheless a walk through the galleries draws the visitor towards these ideas quite naturally. And while we’re collectively conscious of Pop as a cultural critique, its striking to see the more subtle issues of love and despair, or smaller moments intimacy addressed in flat graphics and vibrant colors. The work on display resonates with our present day popular media and has certainly informed current tastes in design, celebrity, identity and globalism. And while its certainly possible and enjoyable to walk through this show taking the work at a visual face value, to tour the show with one of its co-curators gave WACTAC a great opportunity to walk away with a little more context to the works.
Our society is not predisposed towards exploring and understanding things in undertone and nuance. Youth culture, having ascended to a certain audible platform with the Pop art age, can easily be consumed for its bright colors and its broad strokes. And while most of the work in this show are sharp and vibrant, there’s a value to understanding what power and ideology its attempting to speak truth towards. Whether that’s cheap consumerism, jingo, sexual commodification or military dictatorship, the themes resonate today.
The exhibit successfully brings to the forefront many artists that have gone overlooked, overshadowed by the monolithic name brand appeal of Warhol and other American players. Perhaps one of its great achievements is its showing and telling how celebrity worship obscured much of the movement itself (seemingly every piece of media coverage fixates at some point on the high insurance costs of the American works). Close examination of the work reveals human touch. That behind the brand of every artist is a human exploring an idea. But I wonder how this context of a more global and complex history, and the communicative strive to understand it, falls on the 17 year-old mind. Where an older audience that has lived through that era may absorb this show with its own self-awareness. I’m curious what younger audiences can take from it. What is the modern teenager’s understanding of and relationship to the 20th century’s cold and cultural wars? Of nation states and political ideology? Of the individual’s agency and its relation to the world? I’m genuinely excited to check out their event tonight to get a glimpse.