Foreword: 2018 is the ten-year anniversary of Mr. Brainwash’s seminal debut show in Los Angeles. Here’s a look back at my first impressions from opening night.
originally posted June 18, 2008
Speculation aside that he is a puppet of the British artist, Banksy, Mr. Brainwash has finally launched his debut solo exhibit, hosting it inside the former CBS production studios in Hollywood.
Impressive by virtue of its sheer volume, the highly derivative, self-deprecating collection offers a wide range of sculptures, paintings, frescoes, silk-screens and set constructions. Though there are hundreds, if not thousands, of individual components in the show, the work should really be seen as a single installation piece: an immersive three-dimensional universe populated by easily recognized icons of pop art that have been remixed, recycled and recreated through the mischievous eyes of a street artist.
The skillful mimicry on display reveals a sly sense of humour while its coy cross-cultural references practically scream out for ridicule. It is as if one has opened up an art history volume only to discover that it has been given a playful and thorough once-over by the mayhem-embracing designers of video games, such as Grand Theft Auto.
There’s a large set piece of a corner diner that quickly brings Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to mind (and perhaps unintentionally, the staged “backstage” documentary photography of Miriam Backström) but the idyllic Hopper scene that we know through his painting has been resolutely converted into an urban wasteland devoid of people, its exterior walls spray-painted with graffiti, while inside the picture glass windows, the chairs by the counter have all been kicked over. A paint-splattered police squad car parked by the curb completes the scene, emergency lights still flashing.
Settings like these are repeated over and over. Sprawling abandoned spaces, which riff on disparate dystopian views of decaying American cities that in the late hours of night would otherwise be populated by street urchins, skateboarders, and vaguely sinister comic book characters, but here instead, we have eager crowds filling each and every room.
Mr. Brainwash, also known as MBW (and also known as Thierry Guetta), casts a wide net in his romp through his catalog of pop art’s most cherished deities. Here’s your reference to Rauschenberg, your Warhol, your Rosenquist, here’s a signature work by Robert Indiana known the world over, where Guetta replaces the word LOVE with PUNK.
It’s Contemporary Art History 101, where every surface has been tagged and torn, and while not necessarily spat upon, the artists of their day have certainly been given a flick in the ear by Mr. Brainwash and his crew.
Beyond a barely opened door to a vault, one spies Mr. Brainwash’s weapon of choice: an endless glimmering arsenal of golden cans of spray paint safely stacked behind security bars; their numbers (and potential to wreak havoc) stretch onwards to infinity.
But the make-over does not stop with pop art. Mr. Brainwash stomps through the fields of Dutch masters, reworking pastoral oil painted landscapes into garbage-strewn, graffiti-ridden playgrounds, though, as an aside, it may be lost on American audiences that many rural roads in Europe actually do look like this. That is, these days an ancient mill seen at the terminus of a cobblestone country lane is very likely to be surrounded by pockmarked walls covered with graffiti, just as depicted in Mr. Brainwash’s re-interpretation.
Batman, Hannibal Lecter and Run DMC make appearances in paintings done up in the style of portraiture from the Dutch golden age while the Italian Renaissance has also been paid a visit. Mr. Brainwash adds his own modern day props to his mash-up of a Fra Angelico, for example, placing a can of spray paint in the hand of one of the subjects.
Perhaps the most interesting pieces are those sculptural works, which make use of books as their central motif. A library and book repository have been transformed into piles of garbage — literary garbage. Elsewhere, a mountain is made out of castaway dime store paperbacks, with an Apple laptop resting triumphantly on its peak. In another work, the books have been repurposed to form the walls of a room. They don’t sit on shelves, orderly lining the walls, they ARE the walls, chaotically fastened, stuffed, or smashed into place, pages splayed open in some cases, while in other places their spines have been battered and bent, suggesting that the books themselves are now only useful as physical objects. Their contents are no longer of value and therefore the wisdom and knowledge, which they contain is destined to be lost to the dustbin of history in the show’s grotesquely reconfigured world view.
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Looking ahead to a day years away when art critics take time to reflect upon Mr. Brainwash’s inaugural outburst of productivity, one wonders if the work will remain relevant.
Surely, the set pieces making their debuts in a city known for its false fronts offer an interesting commentary on the cultural values of make-believe. Mr. Brainwash’s stagings seem to question Hollywood’s inherent nostalgia not only for the original works that they reference but also for the way the industry obsessively displays an America that likely never existed in the first place.
But what about the topical references to the tabloid stars and political figures of the day? Ranging from celebrities like Britney Spears to political aspirants such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain, they are each subjected to an Andy Warhol-inspired treatment, with lipstick and eye make-up cavalierly slapped onto their faces. Will these particular works age gracefully? In what way will these mocking portrayals still have meaning? Given the setting, it’s hard to argue that the portraits were ever intended to be received with dignity. One suspects that, after the hype, banter and inflated sales have all run their course, these particular works may fade into the darkened abyss of forgotten clichés — less the imprimatur of a master provocateur and more the petulant prank of an art school student.
As for the origins of Mr. Brainwash, some say that the driving force behind this event is Banksy himself. Certainly, there’s a lot of similarity between the two — and if it turns out to be Banksy, then good for him: he has created another subversive spectacle to get tongues wagging, an art fair reframed as underworld carnival with Mr. Brainwash as his ringmaster by proxy. If not, then the mysteriously roguish yet affable persona of Mr. Brainwash owes him a huge debt.
— Christian Svanes Kolding
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