Art has no dominion. This message underlies A Bridge Too Far, an exhibition of young American artists Skyler Brickley, Aaron Curry, Daniel Gordon and Garth Weiser along with Lothar Hempel at Mottahedan Projects in Dubai.
In the twentieth century, the U.S. erected itself as the capital of global culture. Hollywood, the locus of movie production targeting the common public, soon grew to larger than life proportions, devouring local film markets from Europe to Asia in the process and driving the business of the mass production and standardization of narratives and expectations. Its doppelganger in elite culture, the New York City art scene with its esoteric values became the sole arbiter of contemporary art, ordaining culture codes that stamped out foreign innovation that did not pertain to American art about American life.
Today’s internet age, in which the prince and the pauper both participate in a shared platform of ideas and exchange, shatters the contemporary art world’s established hierarchies. Borders have all but disappeared not only in the virtual but also in the real world due to the ease, speed and affordability of modern-day travel. In an adaptation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the twentieth-century art market assumed that economic stability is prerequisite to cultural production. Yet the millennia-old dictum that cultural hegemony follows economic and military imperialism no longer holds.
A Bridge Too Far draws a parallel between the American spirit and the freshness and vigor of the young art scene in Dubai. The show’s title references a like-named American novel by Cornelius Ryan (1974) and its 1977 film adaptation portraying an aborted Allied mission, Operation Market Garden, in 1944. Attempting to end the Second World War via an invasion into Germany that required securing several bridges, the Allied forces had to abandon their aims when the Dutch city of Arnhem proved a bridge too far.
In the context of this exhibition, the phrase finds meaning in a photograph by Daniel Gordon (2010), in which the artist is caught flying from a hilltop toward the Golden Gate Bridge, the West-Coast gatekeeper of American dreams. For the split second taken by the camera shutter, Gordon renders the impossible impossible. Unaltered by Photoshop, this photograph evokes common superhero fantasies, contrasting the limitations of the human body with our lofty aspirations. Yet, more cynically, by demonstrating success, it exposes failure: the image of Gordon’s flight inspires another image in the viewer’s mind—that of his inevitable fall—so that the work simultaneously invokes feelings of hope and doom.
Continuing this exploration of the body, Aaron Curry’s paintings and collages are abstract but also anthropomorphic and therefore Surrealist. Flattening and juxtaposing elements resembling body parts, they also reference Cubism. Bright colors like hot pink recall Warhol and pop art while spray techniques incorporate a touch of 1980’s graffiti, so that these works are politically positioned as commentary on commodity culture, which is at once honored and eschewed. Curry chooses to remain analog in a digital age, producing and copying forms and images in new combinations rather than creating exact reproductions.
Skyler Brickley’s work, which tests the limits of repetition as inherent to digitalization, is also concerned with defining the individual and the possibility of uniqueness in our post-analog world. He uses the same materials as those of a do-it-yourself painting project to create ceiling-to-floor canvases measuring 226 by 127 centimeters, that is, reiterating the 16:9 ratio of a theater screen flipped on its side. The dots resemble Ben-Day prints in a reference to pop art as much as they reflect Brickley’s paint tray. Layering the evocation of the film industry, the paintings suggest blurred film negatives or smeared film stills, hence intimating a faded memory: thus a yellow canvas recalls a girl on the beach while a grey one with bright orange dots recollects a forest fire. Displayed in secession, Brickley’s works suggest an infinite line of production but in fact preserve the human touch. They represent a break down in the digital system we take for granted.
Garth Weiser’s paintings similarly display nostalgia for the human hand. Minimalist black and white interact with fleshy tones in what is a discomforting grafting of the self onto an impersonal world. This paradoxical aesthetic also characterizes Weiser’s other works in which corporate logos are rendered as abstract landscapes while layered canvases and drawings reminding one of wood grain evoke a romantic American past without devolving into the maudlin.
Combining several themes mentioned above, Lothar Hempel’s work plays with memory, dreams, melancholia and expectation. The mixed media sculpture Baccha Paranoika (2009) references Greek tragedy at once with pop advertising and today’s ubiquitous product placement. The work is at once historic and futuristic, fantastic and quotidian, grand and irreverent. It endows the viewer with the ability to participate in the theater of the artwork by placing him/her as an actor in conversation with the character depicted, a reclamation of individual agency in the age of mechanical reproduction.