I am not one to write about art exhibitions in the first person, but it feels right to do it in this case. There is something very straightforward about this show and it doesn’t feel appropriate to be formal (although I cannot seem to escape my diction). Paul Mavrides has inspired me to just let the words fly today. For over thirty years Mavrides has been focusing on the potent career of graphic novel writing, political activism, comic book creation, co-founding of the Church of the SubGenius and dumpster-diving to name a few. This is his first solo show in ten years. I wanted to see what the guy behind “Bob” was doing now.
I was concerned at first when I saw the title image for the exhibition: bold all capital letters over what appeared to be a paint-by-number of a pleasing-to-look-at pastoral scene despite a few too many bold colors. I stared at it for a long time. The text reads “ARTWORK MAKES YOU FREE”. The reason why I was concerned is because the phrase was too close to its’ appropriated phrase, “Work makes you free”, which was a common moniker for Nazi concentration camps. As is my usual practice, I don’t read the press releases until after I see the show (or unless I cannot go to the show). It seemed clear that something politically tongue-in-cheek was at work, so I went to see it in person. As the press release states, the work that Mavrides is making does not conjure up “a cuddly place.” That is true; the work is crass, rude, frank, disturbing and ridiculous. It is also bittersweet, heartwarming, silly and humorous.
In the main gallery is a large selection of text works and in the second gallery is a selection of velvet paintings. The text works include phrases painted on found and thrift store paintings. The original paintings that Mavrides acquires each have their own awfulness, which makes them glorious at the same time for what they are. The paintings not at all precious, indeed they are works that were previously discarded and/or donated for others to acquire. The painted text is sometimes carefully done with attention to detail, and in other cases dripping paint or applying it with irregular gradation. The velvet paintings feature scenes or subjects from post-Cold War United States pop culture and history.
Upon entering the main gallery I am struck by the phrase “GENRE BINDS DESIRE”. A matador is being gorged by a bull—a vivid splash of red blood flying in the air against a field of cake-frosting, palette-knife swaths of paint faithlessly dabbled with straight-out-of-the tube primary colors. Across the way, “PAINT HAS NO POWER” shrouds a lovely ship bobbing on the ocean, its companion vessel in the distance making headway amongst the crests of frothy teal waves. The frame exactly blends with the painting: dark teal with golden flecks. I don’t mean to allude to sarcasm, but what strikes me is the amazing lengths that people in general will go in order to create things.
It is hard to not think of the original painter of these thrift store paintings, wonder who they are and why they were pursuing this—did they enjoy it or realized it was not their passion as they moved on to leather working or embroidering dish towels? Were they in painting class learning perspective tricks, how to see the world differently…and then suddenly in a moment of clarity enrolled in the practical accounting class the following season? One will never know; but there is a clue to who they may be because their signatures are left intact (Mavrides signs his own name next to theirs).
In the second gallery is the selection of velvet paintings. A portrait of Godzilla titled “Lurid Image” featuring the giant creatures spewing flames caught my attention. The multi-colored ribbons of energy swirling behind his back were especially intriguing to me, although it is really difficult to pin-point why specifically; I just simply like it. I looked at it for a long time. I remembered that as a child I had a friend who lived near a young guy who was making miniatures for Godzilla films in the 1970s and he showed us his monster dolls and miniature cities. That is around the time that the Church of the SubGenius was created. I was too young to know about it at the time, but everyone knew who Godzilla was. Looking around at the other velvet paintings in the gallery, embarrassing and highly charged moments in US history and global history are displayed: microscopic rendition of the AIDS virus, the Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald being shot. But days went on regardless, with Godzilla and microwave ovens.
The exhibition gets to the heart of greater issues that are at work here: The Academy, commodification of art, “low” art vs. “high art”, serious vs. hobby and most importantly the politics of these topics, which although sometimes absurd and frustrating are actually very important conversations to have. Much like language itself, words are not owned and are part of a person’s daily routine and are readily available for use. This doubling of appropriation—taking paintings and changing them, using text for communicating—makes the work extremely honest and one need only take them for face value to appreciate them. The velvet paintings offer a glimpse into a pictorial translation of appropriated images in the artist’s own hand. Equally honest, these works endear in ways that make politics seem even more problematic than we care to admit.
“Artwork Makes You Free” is on view through through February 15th, 2014.
For more information visit Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.