sunday, august 21, 2022

The Romance of Pop Art


Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn), II.24, 1967

Screenprint on Paper

36 x 36 inches

Edition of 250, signed



My husband walks in the room. I’m breastfeeding. The girls are playing. I’m watching a video essay showing images from Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol. He asks:


Why are you suddenly thinking about Pop Art? 


Why indeed. A better question is: why have I not been thinking about it? True, Pop Art as a subject in art history hasn’t been on my radar much in the last fifteen years. At least not since leaving school. I must have tossed it away like so much product packaging, or changed the channel on it as I searched for something more deep, more serious to dwell on. And yet, I realize at this moment that I am like a fish in water, so surrounded am I with the raw material of Pop Art. It’s all so close to home in fact, that it takes a little bit of backing away to recognize how ubiquitous it is. Themes of nostalgia, trivia about movie stars and musicians, commercials, radio jingles, old Disney animations pump invisibly through my brain along with the oxygen in my blood. I don’t love pop culture—except that I do. Somehow, it’s important to me. And that’s what Pop Art is about. Like so many childhood memories, the poignancy of an empty package, what’s here today is gone tomorrow—there’s a wistfulness there. A longing. 


Pop Art Is not new anymore. At this point in time, there are objects labeled as “Pop Art” that are made with such lack of consideration that they are even MORE banal and depressing than the original advertisements and fashion images they were derived from. “How to make Pop Art in 5 simple steps” is a title of more than one YouTube video I’ve come across. I suppose a truly clever artist could make something out of that, and probably should. But Pop Art done right? Well, this is a whole different animal. 


In my view, the genius of Pop Art is its sincerity. It’s in some ways a visual corollary to Punk Rock and it's more sophisticated, amiable child: New Wave. Listen to the lyrics of “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop. Or “Pop Goes the World' by Men Without Hats. I mean, what are we talking about here? Pop Art’s themes are both a celebration and a subtle lamentation of the conditions of modern life. In some cases, its urbanity and glossiness is intentionally superficial. See Lichtenstein’s ‘Happy Tears’ from 1964. At other times, as in the case of Punk music, the original glossiness of an image is intentionally marred by violence or imperfection, as if it were a rebellion against the oppressive unreality of reproduction. See Andy Warhol's portraits of famous women. In any case, Pop Art is obsessed with the reality of the surroundings, when, in fact, the artist is surrounded by consumer culture. 


Pop Art exalts images that can unite us in a shared experience, while at the same time, often reminds us of our own spiritual poverty and isolation. One might ask: isn't it sad that pop culture is all that is left to bring us together as a nation? Or isn't it a happy thing, that we all know the tune to “Someday My Prince Will Come?” And that we know every possible iteration of Marilyn Monroe’s face, without actually knowing the woman at all. Unsettling, perhaps. Yet, we take our comfort. 


Last night, after the kids were in bed, I tucked into a bowl of low-carb ice cream and watched about 30 minutes of “Relaxing TV Commercials from 1987.” It really was relaxing. And also a bit poignant after a while. Eventually I had to turn it off. 


But then…what dreams may come. 


And in a dream once, back in about 2005, I found myself in a concrete prison cell, face to face with a gastly, wraith-like figure. He came toward me with an anguished expression. I realized then that the emaciated, skull-face was that of Michael Jackson, a beloved childhood icon. “Michael, please...please help me,” he moaned. I was horrified. 


I glanced over to my left and spied a narrow, horizontal window cut into the cement wall of the cell. I could then see comicbook-like images of paparazzi men, peering through the bars. At first they seemed to be trying to take pictures of Michael, but as I watched in horror, the cameras transformed into instruments of torture, their lenses emitting gruesome spikes and razor sharp blades. The faces of the paparazzi twisted into demonic grins. I knew it was a matter of moments before the demons found a way to move through the bars and into the cell, determined to further torment this pitiful soul. 


Looking again at the emaciated face and sunken eyes, barely living, I was awash with pity. Just then, a mysterious open door appeared on the right hand side wall of the cell. I knew I had to act fast.


“Michael,” I said, “I can't stay here with you anymore. I am going to go through that door now. You can come with me if you want. Please, come with me. But I can’t stay here. I can’t help you here. I can’t.” 


But the poor creature was insensible to my words. So, forbidden to wait any longer, I turned and ran through the door and out of the cell, leaving him behind with his torments. 


I know some of you may laugh at that image. But for me, the dreamer, it was deeply troubling. That’s why I remember it so well. Was it a prophetic dream? With the amount of time I’d spent as a child, wishing Michael Jackson would walk through my bedroom door at night, and be my friend, perhaps I forged some kind of unexplainable psychic bond with him. Perhaps he was crying out to his fans for help, isolated in his own personal hell of fame and infamy; driven insane, perhaps, by his own self image, which he neither owned nor could control, reflected infinitely by the disco ball of the media, a childhood joy-ride that had become a nightmare carnival for him as an adult. The King of Pop. And one of its most wretched casualties. 


And perhaps Michael was me—Michael. Maybe this other me inside myself had appeared to warn me of a dire fate, as all classical wraiths do. Perhaps I was unconsciously preparing myself to walk out of the self-made prison of addiction, leaving the vain, starving, hungry-ghost version of myself behind. I got sober later that year. 


Fast forward to the real world. The world of watchfulness, of early bedtimes, of sleep without screens. Let me remember what it is that I can do to find comfort, even strength amid the overwhelming THING-ness of life. Like Ebineezer Scrooge at the sight of his own grave, now I pray. 


But that’s no easy fix. Because of my brain and my experiences, I am often forced to confront even God as a cheap holy card, a glossy print, another dubious image, a product of popular culture. When I try to pray, ‘Pop Jesus’ can get in the way. Sometimes it’s excruciating. Like trying to accurately remember the face of a loved one who is long dead. At moments like this, the profound lament of Andre Serrano’s “Piss Christ' appears dimly in the background, like a weeping angel. Breaking through that wall of “fake” often feels impossible, though I remain. And God willing, I will remain. And then, sometimes, a mysterious door opens up, and I am permitted to pass through into the bright morning sunshine.


Yes, there is something better out there than psychic trash, the raw material we constantly ingest, like so much microplastic, in this crinkly, warmed over Dasani water bottle of life. And that’s what the best of Pop Art is hinting at; that there is something better. But you have to look at it, in order to see through it. 


As an artist, I often attempt the short cut, and try to cut it all away. All the trash. Replace piles of printed pablum with one simple image: the face of The Beautiful Lady. No, not Marilyn Monroe—the other one. The Original. And wasn’t that what Warhol did, too, when he went to shrive himself every Sunday, by going to holy mass with his mother? 

The junk and accretions of this world accumulate, and we have to scrape them off from time to time, or we sink. But sometimes, we need to save a few special artifacts too, because these are the things of our lives. We cannot be puritans, afraid of decorations, afraid of images. We were made of flesh, and with brains and memories. We have to look at it, in order to see through it. And God so loved the world.