A Review of From the Vapor of Gasoline at White Cube, Mason's Yard, London
Special relationships, wartime and democratic spirals have seen the United Kingdom and the United States of America trading self-inflicted blows on the international stage for decades. White Cube has asserted itself as a cultural nexus in St James’, London, for the time being, with blue chip rigour. The freestanding stronghold of the Mason’s Yard site declares its autonomy and 'From the Vapor of Gasoline' chimes into a chorus of liberal declarations whilst showcasing the best it has to offer; these are market darlings with museum-grade nous. The galleries are littered with Cady Noland and David Hammons assemblages, paintings hang like banners between Robert Gober drains, photographs document the decadent youth of the 1960s and 70s, and Richard Prince’s jokes fill the spaces in between. This thematic exhibition would perhaps not feel so obtusely rebellious were it not for the political climate in the U.S.A., and in the context of President Trump it reads as a desperate shriek from the past.
So whilst Kaepernick resolutely takes a knee, Gober’s work Untitled (Man Coming out of a Woman) (1993-94) is kicking its way down the birth canal in silent violence in a Mayfair gallery. It is very hard not to view this curated selection of works as funny – a terrible, distant humour that is almost Kafka-esque in its essential distress. In March's issue of Frieze, Patrick Langley acknowledges there is: ‘progressiveness [in] satire: the idea that – even at their most childish, scatological and offensive – satirists are trying to improve society’ (see Patrick Langley, “Gallows Humour,” Frieze, March 2017, 34.). Taking the work seriously, therefore, regardless of setting, is a social necessity, considering the state both Brexit Britain and Trump’s America finds itself in; if Americans are looking for answers in Europe, however, our Dream has failed as much as theirs.
Images here are sparse – except for the work of Larry Clark, whose candid and explicit photography provide an apolitical version of events – lettering, numerals and 'the print' prevail. Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Cast of Characters) (2016) is the only work from post-2000. Hung high on the wall billboard-style, it is the voice of an artist who has lived through the tumultuous politics of the 21st Century, seen the proliferation of social media, and seen that same platform politicised and weaponised. ‘Posers’, ‘divas’, ‘intellectuals’, ‘winners’ and ‘haters’ all appear amidst a scrum of labels and favoured contemporary insults, tired of ‘brutal schemers’ as much as experts. The tonality of Kruger’s work speaks to rather than for, and it is self-evident that the work, in ardently declaring one’s societal moulding – in typical Kruger-capitalisation – and at such physical height, manifests its iniquity and tyrannical attitude.
The exhibition’s despotic demeanour continues with the Christopher Wool works that feature on the far walls of the two gallery levels: Untitled (P135) (1989-1990) declaring ‘RIOT’ and Head (1992) – with no little feeling – written ‘HOLE IN HEAD’. Wool’s works are inescapable, their dark humour is only considered comedic in such a setting as the silence of the gallery, and the one-word poems colour every work that sits in its periphery. For this reason, a more cerebral Basquiat, 2 for a dollar (1983), is almost lost in the echo chamber. The work, which is typical of his paring phrases to the bone until they become "readymade," is as much an economic critique as an artistic one – ‘$59’ stamped twice in iconic Basquiat hand across a divided canvas. It is visually impoverished by comparative standards of the artist's work, but here serves to graffito the wall in quiet revolt.
This exhibition is a plea to wake up and smell the gasoline, a political and economic statement of concern. Coinciding with Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power – taking into account Arthur Jafa’s recent solo show at the Serpentine Galleries – institutions are wrestling with the need for art to engage with tensions that are proving impenetrable through usual modes of discourse. Gallerist Gavin Brown recently acknowledged ‘the liberal left…were complacent for a very long time…we are now in unchartered territory’ (see “Episode 6: Hypercapitalization, with Gavin Brown and Allan Schwartzman,” interview by Charlotte Burns, In Other Words, Art Agency Partners, 18 April, 2017). This grouping of works is highly ambitious, but utterly pertinent. White Cube deserves a commendation for not shying away from a sense of artistic duty in the face of that which suppresses creative license.
Written by Oliver Morris Jones, a Contributor to Arteviste.