Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2016
To start, I absolutely and positively adored this show. I knew that I would going into it, since I read a ton of information on consumer culture and visual expressions of capitalism while in graduate school, and for this reason I kind of avoided writing my reactions to it in exhibition form. I still think it’s harder to write about something you really like, which I know I’ve mentioned on here before, and the last thing I wanted this entry to turn into was some mashup of articles past, a version of my thesis abstract with image titles mixed in, a narrative that basically consists of LOOK AT THIS PERFECT EXPRESSION OF THIS THING I RESEARCHED THREE YEARS AGO. Instead, it will probably be more fun for all of us if I focus on all of the things I didn’t know about prior to seeing this show.
Thankfully, there was a lot of that. This exhibition did of course include some projects by the most famous American pop artists, featuring the iconic paintings of cartoons and sculptures with carefully reproduced logos by Lichenstein and Warhol. There were also many projects that I wasn’t already familiar with, including a super interesting store installation by Robert Watts with sculptures of fruits and vegetables flocked in velvet or cast out of metal, directly across from a display with a rack of custom raincoats in front of colorful wallpaper designed by German artist Thomas Bayrle.
The international scope of the show provided me with names of artists I had never previously heard of from Brazil, Japan, and other countries, and I found that the relationships the works created within the exhibition were able to frame the American works in ways that you might not have considered had the exhibition focused solely on American work. Works by Brazilian artists Wanda Pimentel, Anna Maria Maiolino, and Antonio Dias explore pop aesthetics in a political context, using graphic visual language and bright colors to discuss acts of war, violence, and overwhelming interaction. Plain reference to political topics serves as a reminder to the viewer that pop has political ties, even in its most aesthetically pleasing expression, and considering such a dialogue forces you to see the other power structures at play. Edward Ruscha’s Standard Station features visually stunning aesthetics and captivating experimentation with exaggerated perspective, but it could also be included in a conversation about American oil companies, advertising, branding, and, ultimately, money and power.
On the surface, American pop is bright, visually appealing, and at times seemingly naïve in its representations of 50s advertisements, commercials, and tv dinners. For a viewer that experienced the 1960s as a child, as was the case with my parents who came with me to see the show, there can be a nostalgic response to these images and a strong connection to a piece stemming from this familiarity. Yet International Pop also featured pieces that directed a darker, more emotionally charged conversation on global topics while simultaneously embracing enticing pop aesthetics. Japanese artist Tetsumi Kudo utilized the bright colors and graphic elements of pop in the piece entitled Olympic Winners Platform, which also features sculptural representations of severed body parts as a means of referencing nuclear energy and violent fragmentation.
The piece elicits a highly emotional reaction, ultimately forcing the viewer out of the television nostalgia haze and into narratives constructed in response to thoroughly distressing global events occurring at exactly the same time in history. And in my opinion, this was the incredibly important opportunity International Pop offered to its viewers. It put you in a position where you were unable to dismiss pop as a fluffy, surface-y, and naïve American genre, instead forcing you to consider this visual language as it related to some of the most sobering and serious topics of its time. The viewer gets drawn in, in the way a well-designed ad forces you to look, but the difference is that the ad is telling you to buy a certain kind of laundry detergent, and the art featured in this show was ultimately sending out an entirely different message.
It was a show that I was meant to respond to, works that anyone who is vaguely familiar with my art could have predicted that I would spend time with. And so, I had no choice but to write a glowing, fan girl review in response to it. But at least I warned you that I would, right from the start.