T&A with WKRPinc.
Is there a more straightforward thing on the planet than pornography? Pornography itself – men and women in all permutations, getting naked, having sex or merely showing their goods, mostly to a most primitive end – stripped away from moral judgments and societal reverberations, is practically empty of irony, point of view or deeper meaning. It is just what it purports to be.Which might help to explain why there is so much commentary surrounding pornography. Nature abhors a vacuum: Pornography doesn’t reflect on itself, so it is left to others – filmmakers, politicians, the whole of the E! Entertainment cable TV channel – to place it in some sort of context.According to David Floria, owner of the local eponymous art gallery, the commercial art world is rife at the moment with pornography-inspired works. The Mary Boone Gallery in New York is exhibiting Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ “XXX: 30 Porn Stars,” a series of unadorned photos of porn actors, posing both naked and clothed. A block away, at Caren Golden Fine Art, Belgian artist Ellen Depoorter is showing her “Virgins & Madonnas” series of paintings that examine the thread tying traditional nudes and Internet porn. Both Art News and Print magazines have done recent sex issues.Few artists have as much to say about, and with, pornography than the locally centered collective WKRPinc. The trio – Aspenites Pamela Joseph and Robert Brinker, and former Aspenite Kurosh ValaNejad, who now lives in Los Angeles – subvert the straightforwardness of pornography in all sorts of ways: with context and form, humor and composition, materials and color. Unlike the aforementioned New York exhibits, where the line between art and porn is thin, the current WKRPinc. exhibits – two of them, one at the David Floria Gallery, and the other part of the Aspen Art Museum’s Aspen Valley Biennial – use pornographic images to make something quite removed from porno. In the case of the WKRPinc. wallpaper – yes, wallpaper, which they intend to market as such – many viewers aren’t even likely to notice that the standard-looking design is actually made up of pornographic images, duplicated and mirrored and shrunk small.
Joseph, who seems to be the thematic center of the work – collectively called the Body Parts Project – has long explored ideas of female sexuality. A product of the ’60s protest movement, she doesn’t seem to ever shy away from revealing flesh. She has two additional current exhibits: in Paris is “Cherchez la femme,” works on paper featuring her voluptuous, bathing suit-clad heroine, Pussy Marshmallow, in various stages of pose and activity; and in Barcelona is “La Madona Desnuda,” a sexually heightened take on Goya’s naked Madona. Going back further, Joseph has placed naked women in front of shooting targets, in shackles and in ropes.Brinker, who studied art at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is a former director of Anderson Ranch’s print shop, has long had an interest in abstraction, in altering the form of representational images until they were, in effect, abstract art. A specialty has been tracing shapes and lines, often out of comic books and coloring books, cutting out the negative spaces between the images, and filling them with other cut-out paper. “It plays with perception, seeing something that’s there and not there,” said Brinker.As Joseph and Brinker have been a couple for about a decade and have continuously worked both together and separately, their artistic ideas have rubbed off on each other. Nude images cropped up in Brinker’s work; and Joseph allows that “All my best ideas are Robert’s.”Some six years ago, while vacationing south of Cancun, those intertwined interests began to take specific form. In a small shop, Joseph came upon a Spanish soft-porn comic book, with pictures of macho-cheesy men and impossibly shaped women. It was just the kind of thing to which her eye is naturally attracted.
“They were just cool,” said Joseph. “Cutting out these images, it was very meditative for me. You sit there with scissors and this little page and cut out arms and legs” – not to mention breasts and butts and mouths. “And at first, I wasn’t thinking about what I would do with them.”Taking a cue from Brinker’s way of working, the two made small collages of the body parts. The fondling, often biting – but never quite fornicating – bodies were rearranged, giving the works an element of formal composition; the collages were given backgrounds of pretty, pastel-like colors, further taking them out of the realm of porn.The collages, which are at the Floria Gallery, were a beginning. Brinker next had the idea to make medium-size paintings based on the collages, taking them another step away from their original form. The paintings, looking a bit stark, were given elaborate backgrounds, mostly inspired by Victorian-era wallpaper designs. Another friend suggested that they actually make their designs into a wallpaper, and they brought in ValaNejad, who had designed the staircase at the Buttermilk house shared by Joseph and Brinker, to do just that. Finally, a series of large paintings, using multiple images from the collages, were made. The exhibit at the Art Museum features the smaller and the larger paintings – with titles like “Flesh Farm” and “In Pink Paradise,” borrowed from porn movies – mounted against the wallpaper. In a bold and somewhat controversial stroke, the women’s bathroom at the museum is also papered with WKRPinc. designs. (Paper-hanger Christi Palazzi is thought to have done such a good job installing the wallpaper, she is considered an honorary member of WKRPinc.)While WKRPinc – an acronym that takes the ‘W’ from wallpaper plus their three first initials – is looking into marketing the wallpaper and fabric, they already have for sale ties and scarves with their soft-porn imagery.
The Body Parts Project works on so many artistic levels that it is easy to lose sight of the nature of the source material. For one thing, it is literally possible to overlook the graphic content of the wallpaper. And it is a neat visual/mental interplay at work at the museum: The paintings are so in-your-face, and the wallpaper just behind it, containing the same basic imagery, is so not. All of the works are heavy on composition and color.”The source has sexual content,” noted gallery owner Floria. “But when [Joseph] takes that apart, she’s deconstructing the pornographic images and they become very abstract and formal. And then in the wallpaper, it’s spun and repeated and becomes even more abstract, even decorative. It becomes, to me, less loaded than how pornography usually is.”There is also plenty of narrative going on. On one level, Joseph and Brinker like the way they have taken a commodity (pornography) turned it into art (the collages and paintings) and are now in the process of re-commodifying the images, by churning out wallpaper and fashion items.Richest of all is the intertwining of sex and humor. Floria says it’s “like R. Crumb meets Betty and Veronica south of the border, with a strong does of machismo.” Joseph’s work, inspired from the start by the feminist movement, has always had a playfulness, rather than a militancy, to it.
“The story through my work is a sense of humor,” she said. “In our lives, bad things happen. Terrible, dramatic things. And if you look at it in a negative way, you’re not going to get through. You’re going to go under. If you have a sense of humor, even if it’s a black humor, you’ll get through it.”Not everyone takes groped breasts and bitten butts as lightly as Joseph, who seems eternally upbeat. While visiting upstate New York’s Alfred University, she offered to donate a bunch of her calendars to a women’s support group. “And they totally didn’t understand it,” she said. “They thought I was advocating violence against women.”Joseph and Brinker, of course, see no such thing in their work. But they can find the humor within the darker tones that lurk in comic-book pornography.”We’re taking something that’s violent. But in this context, they don’t have that violence and machismo,” said Brinker. “They’re very sexual, like orgies. But it’s taken out of context here. You’re taking this mass-produced thing and cutting it up.”
“There’s the playful element. There’s the edgy violence,” noted Joseph. “And that’s our society, right?”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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