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8 November 2010

Olaf Breuning’s nobrow visual Rolodex: a snapshot of contemporary visual culture

Props to Swiss-born, New York-based artist Olaf Breuning for his very awesome & whimsical website. Pay particular attention to the nice catalog of his photographic work.

Let me break down two of my favorites. The female photo circa 1997 (above) is called Sibylle; the male (circa 2008) is called Brian.

Clearly these images are not to be judged as art photographs in the the traditional sense; rather they are in the tradition of the sculptural & performative understanding of that medium, an understanding that is increasingly grabbing hold of the art world’s imagination. (It is a cross-disciplinary era we are living through.)

What I like about Breuning’s work most, though, is not how on-trend it is; rather it is his clear-eyed, multi-layered, post-taste evocation of contemporary visual culture — how that evocation collapses boundaries between high and low source material — and, finally, how that evocation makes my brain hurt. To my mind, Breuning’s work may be the definition of the word “Nobrow” — though apologies to John Seabrook if I’m willfully misusing the term that he coined. (Amazon.com’s review of Seabrook’s book Nobrow says it depicts a world in which “art and commerce have fused like colliding electrons” which sounds about right.)

To dive in deeper, here’s my close reading of the images at the top of this post.

High culture sources sort of dominate the Breuning visual Rolodex™ on display. Look at the Matthew Barney-esque hair and horns on Sibylle. And the severed legs remind me of Goya or Cindy Sherman. (Dude, watch out, don’t get the wrong Goya, as tasty as it may be.) It’s a bit of a bummer that the high art sources are what jumps out first, but what else would you expect from someone who makes his living in the high art world?

I would also maintain, however, that he goes out of his way to make sure there are many links to massively popular culture in these images. He wants his work to be more than some in-group in-joke. For example, I’m not sure if the dinner roll & cucumber fingers are meant to evoke the puffy appendages of Charles Schultz‘s characters specifically, but surely they are some kind of pledge of allegiance to cartoon anatomy. Another example: Sure, the half-human, half-monster nature of these figures points to the Cubist grotesquerie of Picasso or the performance art grotesquerie of Paul McCarthy, but the sense of humor indicates an awareness of fantasy subcultures like Frank Frazetta-style fantasy art or Dungeons & Dragons. The latter subculture provides just as seductive, all-encompassing & lurid a world for teenagers (and extended adolescents) as the art world provides for some adults. Ergo:

The only difference between this world of low fantasy and the world of high art, perhaps, is that the art world maintains a sometimes farcical comedy of values which prevents its denizens from ever questioning their aesthetics. Because, well, questioning their aesthetics would throw into question some crucial financial assumptions. (I love Art, but it’s sometimes hard to look upon the Art World as anything other than an economic bubble waiting to happen.)

Anyhoo, getting back to my train of thought, the slyness of Breuning’s photographs are that they don’t privilege their high art sources. No do they find the artist crafting a middlebrow tribute to popular culture that he’ll then sell as HIGHbrow to earn HIGHprices. Rather, I’d argue that Breuning is making a scorched earth Tribute To-slash-Condemnation Of visual culture in general. These photographs are love letters and whoopie cushions at the same time.

As a counter example, take someone like Jeff Koons who goes to great lengths to let us know his love of low culture (pornography, kitsch) is sincere, then makes gilded ceramic sculptures of Michael Jackson and his pet chip Bubbles, stretching credulity to its breaking point. Don’t get me wrong, I like Koons and sort of believe in his sincerity, but its a different, more blunt force tension he is working with…

Breuning, by contrast, goes to great lengths to leave us stranded in a visual maze. In that maze, it’s unclear what is lovable and what is pathetic, what is cute and what is terrifying.

Here’s my review: I like it.

A visual atlas of possible influences at play in Breuning’s photographs after the jump:
Read more »

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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17 May 2010

Sam Lipsyte’s America. ALSO, how Woody Allen, Bob Dylan & LCD Soundsystem approach American decadence with a similar sense of humor.


Image of Sam Lipsyte with son via Flickr.

I’ve been a huge fan of New York novelist Sam Lipsyte since reading his pretty much unimpeachable 2004 novel Homeland. His new novel, The Ask, is that rare bit of fiction whose publication I anticipated eagerly.

His work is laugh-out-loud funny — rare for the pinched world of literary fiction — but also on the pulsebeat of culture. His punchlines are not only humor for the sake of humor; they are the horrified, cackling, self-conscious crack-up of an insightful artist who understands that laughter is, perhaps, the best reaction an intelligent citizen can have in the face of our culture’s decadent decline. Viz Woody Allen’s New York films of the 1970s, Bob Dylan’s increasingly ridiculous culture-bombing gambits, and whatever it is that LCD Soundsystem are doing these days. Some illustrations, below:

Woody Allen’s coke scene in Annie Hall

Bob Dylan’s Victoria’s Secret advert

LCD Soundsystem’s “Drunk Girls” video by Spike Jonze

Unfortunately I don’t think Lipsyte’s new book coheres in the same way as Homeland did. The Ask lacks both a convincing plot and the devastatingly clever literary conceit that elevated that book. (Homeland took the form of inappropriate, intimate letters to a high school alumni newsletter, 20 years after graduation.) And, finally, this new book’s conclusions are depressing in a way that seemed more exhausted than insightful. It’s as if Lipsyte was so tired of living with these characters he preferred they collapse at the end of the book rather than come upon some germ of real truth or real meaning.

That said, I never stopped laughing and you will be hard pressed to find new piece of fiction that better investigates matters that actually reflect and refract what’s going on in our culture today. Read more »

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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