Art mixed with double meanings, dark humor
Hung, Drawn and Quartered, the exhibit of works by Kendell Geers in the downstairs gallery of the Aspen Art Museum, is all about ambiguities. With words and images and barbed wire, Geers explores the startling proximity of beauty and terror, fact and fiction, purity and debasement. Almost out of nowhere, the 36-year-old Geers, surveying the collection of drawings and installations, says “The most beautiful moment is when you drive past a car wreck. You’re exhilarated and terrified at once. It’s a moment which is beyond words.”So the fact that Hung, Drawn and Quartered, an exploration of ambiguity, is rendered almost entirely in black-and-white works as a cosmic joke.
It’s not the only joke in the exhibit. Hung, Drawn and Quartered is, both on its surface and through and through, serious business. War and destruction are consistent themes, with pornography, propaganda and politics getting plenty of attention as well. But among the principal elements Geers sees in the work is humor. It is, Geers admits, a black brand of humor, and subtle to boot, centered around wordplay such as the phrase “Here Lies Truth,” printed on an oversized approximation of a tombstone. Still, Geers calls it “absolutely funny.””People in England and America have the same response. They don’t get the double meanings, the puns,” said the Belgian-based Geers, explaining his relatively cool reception in the English-speaking world. “In France, that’s part of the game. In the Anglo-Saxon world, we don’t function in double meanings and humor. We like humor, but not in our art. In cinema or theater, we like it. And a lot of my work is this black humor.”One reason Geers sees humor as such a fundamental part of the work is that he gets all the jokes. Not everyone will. A prerequisite for understanding the humor as Geers does is a vast knowledge of art history and general history. Geers’ ink drawing “La Sainte Vierge,” a near-pornographic image of a woman spreading her legs, isn’t at all funny if you don’t know that the title translates to “the virgin saint.” And to fully appreciate the piece, one must know the reference to French Dadaist Francis Picabia’s own “La Sainte Vierge,” and that Geers’ version was influenced by Japanese manga, a form of cartoon art. To Geers, that adds up to a potent mix: art history, ambiguity, wordplay and borderline offensiveness.”It’s about sex and violence and death,” he said. “You’re repulsed and attracted at the same time.”Similarly, the phrase painted in straightforward fashion near the top of a museum wall – “Many coloreds placed side by side to form a row of many coloreds” – can be as puzzling as it is intriguing. But if one knows the original source – conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s phrase, “Many colored objects placed side by side to form a row of many colored objects” – it becomes more playful and humorous. Throw the country of Geers’ birth – South Africa – into the background, and the imagery and associations become chilling.
“The humor only starts to function if you have knowledge,” said Geers. “Language and humor are closely associated. And the language I’m speaking is of 20th-century art history.”Geers believes, however, that one need not get the jokes to appreciate the art. (In many cases, helpful contextual information is included in the wall texts that accompany the pieces.) “Present Tense,” a massive digital clock hung upside down by the museum entrance, is bound to make viewers look differently at time. (And language, if one happens to see the piece at 11:34, when the inverted numerals spell “hell.”) A collection of drawings that offer clever visual and linguistic variations on the f-word raise issues of anger, language and, yes, humor, even if the reference to a lithograph by influential artist Bruce Nauman flies over the head. The most accessible pieces simply break down words and phrases – “t-error,” “Imp-Each-Bush” – to make us contemplate other meanings.In the most striking piece in the exhibit, a huge wall made of razor-mesh, Geers’ essential point – the juxtaposition of the beauty of the material, the danger of the barbed points, and the political uses made of razor-mesh – needs little specialized knowledge. And the historical reference – the title is “Akropolis Now” – is taken from popular culture.Far from seeing himself as playing to the knowledgeable few, Geers sees his role as akin to the ultimate in the contemporary street-level artist – the hip-hop remixer who samples bits of art from the culture around him. Instead of reconstituting bits of music, he is reassembling the art form that he knows best.
“I’m not interested in only high culture,” he said. “I’m interested in pop culture, the remix, hip-hop culture. It’s more about stealing and sampling.”I use language as a form of resistance – in the same way as hip-hop works with ebonics. You have a language, but you shift it based on your own experience to create a new language.”Political persuasionMore obvious than the humor of Hung, Drawn and Quartered is the politics. The drawing “Go Ho Me To Your Fami Lies” plays on the phrase printed on leaflets dropped on Baghdad just before the Shock and Awe assault. “(Hiroshima) 17” is an image of the lone building left standing after the nuclear bombing of the Japanese city that ended World War II. Consider these with “Imp Each Bush,” and Geers seems to be dealing in standard anti-war political sloganeering.Not necessarily so, says the artist: “It depends how we define politics.” Geers proceeds to make the distinction between conveying a definite political viewpoint, which he detests, to raising sociopolitical issues in a manner that encourages questioning. “Imp Each Bush,” he protest, can be read to mean use the political process to oust the president, or to copy the president and his family members.
“For me as an artist, I know what I stand for politically,” said Geers. “But these artists who try to teach the world their own politics are arrogant. They elevate their view to an authority.”These have the moral ambiguity where they pose a question,” Geers continued. (Though he does eventually concede that “Imp Each Bush” is the most direct of his works, hammering the point home with the statement that “Bush is the most imp-like leader of the world.”)The humor that underlies Geers’ art has not been enough to let the sharper points of the work slide by unnoticed. He calls controversy “an occupational hazard,” and though he doesn’t court it, he does seek to provoke a response. And he gets it; his work has been vandalized on occasion.”I see it more as I’m sitting with a dead frog – that’s the culture and time and place I live in. If I hit the nerve with a needle, the leg is going to jump,” said Geers.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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