Curating Identity

I recently participated in an exhibit for the campus art museum called, Intersection: Identity, Art, and Culture. Faculty from across the college were invited to select works from the permanent collection and write a curatorial statement about the relevance of the objects to their teaching. Since my current American Studies course is a survey of American popular culture from 1830, I tried to articulate a notion of style as a performance of countercultural resistance.

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My interdisciplinary courses in English and American Studies emphasize artistic collaborations that cross and claim borders. At the intersection of word, image, and sound, such courses pursue a multimedia approach to American icons and iconography.

Once, when asked “what is jazz?” Louis Armstrong replied that “if you have ask, you’ll never know.” Armstrong’s evasion emphasizes the importance not of the music itself, but the process of its making. He characterizes jazz as a practice, not a theory—a style that may exceed language. I am intrigued by the everyday performance of identity. American art is a kind of record of this constant self-creation. It depicts the often uneasy negotiation of individuality and social context. These photographs by Andy Warhol capture candid, intimate moments in which art textures and transforms the ongoing process of making and remaking oneself.

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Unidentified Men, Andy Warhol

Warhol was an acute observer of popular culture, and his work represents the profound contradictions of American entertainment. It can be politically charged and easily commodified, simultaneously liberating and oppressive. Think, for instance, of Warhol’s portraits of Mao Zedong. My courses highlight multimedia experiments like Warhol’s collaboration with the Velvet Underground or his avant-garde films, which epitomize the aesthetic and political changes of the1960s and 70s.

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Mao, Andy Warhol (not shown in exhibit)

At the crossroads of avant-garde aesthetics and popular culture, Warhol fashioned himself as an American original. He reveled in celebrity, insisting there was no deeper significance to his art. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” he explained, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”

Often, studying popular culture means looking for what isn’t there or listening for what isn’t said. Convincing performances depend as much on details withheld from audiences as on those revealed. As a form of self-expression, style is a composite text: a set of linked choices, difficult to identify in any single detail and yet omnipresent. Likewise, photorealism worries the line between surface and depth. By painting photographic images, these artists ironize the relationship between the documentary and expressive functions of art. Technique becomes style. The medium is the message.

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Night Times Square, Noel Mahaffey

The content also expresses competing, sometimes contradictory impulses through juxtaposition. In Night Times Square by Noel Mahaffey, a darkly gleaming van anchors the image, obstructing the view of patrons seeking Chinese food, a topless dance, or an Orange Julius, all advertised in the same glaring neon. Likewise, Charles Bell presents childhood treats like ice cream and gum-balls alongside ads for more advanced vices like cigarettes and malt liquor in Little Italy.

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Little Italy, Charles Bell

In Tom Blackwell’s 451, the glass of the shop window reflects the streetscape. The artist’s perspective within the painting mirrors the viewer’s—looking at a surface that appears both as a transparent window and a reflection of the world outside the frame. These paintings simultaneously efface and affirm individuality. The authentic and the imitation are interchangable–humbug becomes legitimate art. Photorealist–or hyper-realist–art was initially dismissed by some as a paint-by-numbers exercise, but it represents a profound challenge the traditional role of the artist in the age of mechanical reproduction.

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451, Tom Blackwell

City Scene 1 by Lester Johnson uses a rather different technique, but arrives at similar questions about style and substance. Johnson’s inversion of high and low cultural references evokes popular culture’s democratizing aesthetic influence. Leonardo Da Vinci is reduced to a t-shirt design, while popular fashion like tight-fitting shirts, bell-bottom jeans, and high-heeled shoes are elevated to meaningful symbols worthy of high-art portraiture. Even though the figures avoid the viewer’s gaze—the man smokes listlessly, the women turn their faces upward and away—their careful gestures convey a self-conscious performance of refusal.

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City Scene 1, Lester Johnson

Such a posture illustrates the ambiguity of popular forms. The superficial pretense of popular culture provides an essential cover for the sometimes unconscious, often resonant ironies. These contradictions and reversals are constantly replayed in national spectacle and everyday entertainment. From folk life and early print culture to stage traditions like minstrelsy and vaudeville to Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, my courses employ concepts, methods, and theories from a variety of literary, historical, and cultural sources to elucidate and critique the contours and dimensions of American style.

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