When I stumbled upon the title of this exhibition I immediately thought about the state of the country. In the United States, you could say that the current tone for the average citizen would be filled with worry, unexpected events and the questioning of what it really means to be an American. “From the Vapour of Gasoline” at White Cube’s Mason Yard space, a group show featuring a caucus of artists works speak directly to humanity with a sinister yet clever disposition, immediately challenges that identity with images that conjure thoughts of a time where injustice reared its ugly face leading most citizens to question their place in a society that is supposed to protect their liberties and freedoms, or so that was the initial story.
The title of the exhibit borrows its name from “Peruvian Maid”, 1985 artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose trademark scribble can be seen prominently in the work, almost suggesting the evidence of smoke without seeing the fire that usually succeeds. Presenting on images of “Americana” like the Dollar Bill and The U.S. Flag and pairing them with text and visuals that simulate violence and poverty, almost create a relationship that speaks far beyond the original origin of these images and it’s intended meaning.
“RIOT”, by Christopher Wool, the first work that you directly encounter upon entering the gallery, along with Cady Noland’s “Flag” immediately triggers a feeling of recent events involving the destruction of major cities because of what was promised by the symbol of “Freedom”. It seems that the values of what the flag really means are continuously challenged by citizens who feel that America should hold true to its promises and follow through on the promises made.
But with recent events like the protest of the Flag by Colin Kaepernick and countless other NFL players and the killing of unarmed black men, it seems almost fitting that Robert Gober’s “Drain” assists the viewer in questioning whether those morals stand true or are they just another failed promise of the American Dream. It’s so fitting in the sense that if you weren’t already familiar with the work of Gober, you would think the galleries plumber somehow fell asleep at the wheel.
Adding to this are the visuals of a double transparency of a dollar bill staring directly at David Hammons’ work Untitled (body print), 1975, depicting a black man with his head held high, draped in the same symbol of a country sworn to uphold the ideals of its citizens.
As you make your way down the steps into the lower part of the gallery you’re greeted with one of Richard Prince’s famous “Joke” artworks that provided a light-hearted laugh as you enter the second space that houses the rest of the exhibition. The laugh was short-lived as I made my right turn into the photos by Larry Clark which go on to represent the ills of society. Images of prostitution, gunshot wounds, drug and spousal abuse, the space is especially fitting, hidden almost out of sight, speaking to how these societal issues go unnoticed and untreated.
It seems that this show chooses to exacerbate self-image and play along with the ideologies of what seems to be ephemeral meaning of these symbols. What is American society? Do we all fit? Do we each have an individual voice or are we susceptible to mass media and distorted images that shape what we believe to be reality? Does the American Flag still stand for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness or has all of that been sold out for the growth of the corporate machine? I wonder if that was in the thoughts of Barbara Kruger when she created her Untitled (Cast of Characters), 2016, featuring bold white text on black canvas elucidating a mixture of personalities that could easily pass for a representation of the art world.
As an American citizen viewing the show in another country, I don’t know if I should feel embarrassed or enlightened by the content of the show. Having an outside looking in approach definitely allows me to think about the works in the proper context without the chatter of vulgarity spewed by other countrymen whose feelings seem to be hurt at the sentiments displayed, which seems almost to be another snapshot of where we are today.
In the press release for the show, a key sentence stuck out to me. “These artists sought by different means to re-acquaint their audience with the uncomfortable truths beyond the American Dream.” This made me chuckle because if you pose this question to Americans, most will act like they don’t know what you mean. “America is the greatest country in the world!” you may hear a few say, I tend to agree, but I’m also not oblivious to the fact that we have work to do. Maybe having this exhibit on the lawn of the White House would be a good place to start? Hmmm, let me think about that and get back to you.