at Feigen, through July 26
at Imperfect Fluids, through August 7
By Mark Swartz
River North lies only a few blocks from Cabrini-Green, but few of its galleries ever do anything to acknowledge their proximity to urban poverty. One River North gallery that does address social issues--in particular, street violence--is Feigen, which staged a show earlier this year by Inigo Manglano-Ovalle. Along with manipulated audiotapes of gunfire and an installation that included a sheet of bulletproof acrylic, the exhibit featured Wake, a prism of the compound used by gun manufacturers to predict the action of bullets penetrating flesh. Two hollow-point bullets had been fired into the compound from opposite ends, their trajectories halted midway by the dense, amber-colored gelatin.
In a new show at Feigen, James Rosenquist's Professional Courtesy, part of his current series "Target Practice," revisits the explosive potential of two guns pointed at each other, but in a drastically different style. Rosenquist's status is secure as one of the prime developers of 60s pop, and while he continues to develop his vision he adheres to the Day-Glo colors and advertising iconography that characterize the movement. One of the guns is aimed out into the gallery, and the other is aimed into the picture space, as though from the perspective of the viewer. The guns dominate the four-by-four-foot canvas--more than matching the intensity of the solid orange background. They are gleaming and seductive, and the way they fit the hand is oddly comforting on the super-enlarged scale that Rosenquist has selected. The hands are steady--the implication being that the people they are attached to know what to do with a gun--and yet the threat is palpable that one of the guns might go off, thereby inciting a shoot-out with the other pictures on the walls of the gallery.
The painting might well have been the poster for Reservoir Dogs, depicting the standoff between Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi). Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his recent review of Dead Man, contrasts Jim Jarmusch's handling of violence with Quentin Tarantino's "feel-good slaughterfests," but certainly Jarmusch's black-and-white, literary treatment of violence is just as contrived as anything Tarantino has come up with. It's in the very nature of art to stylize violence to make it palatable. Jarmusch and Tarantino have found their individual styles of depicting gunplay, and neither is more authentic or moral than the other. Similarly, while Manglano-Ovalle presents a complex vision in a contemporary vocabulary and Rosenquist presents a monolithic one in a visual language more than 30 years old, both are effective and valid as social commentary. Compared with the real thing, both visions are contrived, but, short of dragging a fresh corpse into the gallery, I don't see any choice in the matter.
The other paintings that make up "Target Practice" depict guns and hands but in arrangements that are less obvious and not as easily decipherable. In Vestigial Intellect the gun is aimed straight at whoever is standing before the painting, but the path of the incipient bullet is blocked by four pairs of spectacles. In Laser three gun barrels poke out from the picture plane, and the background is black except for a small red circle. In previous decades, Rosenquist has combined eggs and razor blades, blue jeans and typewriters, and, in the 86-foot-long mural F-111 (1965), light bulbs, spaghetti, and a Firestone tire, so it's safe to say that he's used to expressing himself in oblique ways. Those juxtapositions suggest the regurgitation of visual stimuli rather than the uncovering of the artist's subconscious, and what the current series says to me is that he's overloading on images of violence in the media. Rosenquist simultaneously recoils at the prospect of an increasingly violent society and admits to his pleasure in the appearance of a gun.
Rosenquist has spent 36 years as a painter--which means his career is 12 years older than Lee Wells, proprietor and first exhibitor at the Imperfect Fluids gallery, who also explores contradictory feelings about guns in his series "Targets Self" but because of his age and experience goes about it differently. After serving in Germany as a gunner for the U.S. Army during the Persian Gulf war, Wells enrolled as an undergraduate in the art program at UIC, where he's down to his last few semesters. In his paintings he has tried to find ways to combine his weaponry experience with his taste for art of the 60s. Count Them as They Fall strongly recalls the complex multimedia surfaces of Robert Rauschenberg, and it contains repeated images of a boy dressed up as a cowboy, the ultimate gun-wielding American icon. Fire 1-6 started out as a painting of a target, an obvious reference to Jasper Johns, but Wells takes it a step further by actually shooting the painting. It makes sense to me, but it's also kind of shocking: I had always thought of Johns's targets as aesthetic objects rather than, in art historian W.J.T. Mitchell's words, "optical array[s] whose function is the cultivation of a predatory, aggressive vision."
Targets play a part in several other of Wells's pictures, but they are not ones that he painted. Rather, he uses targets from shooting ranges, some of which he shot himself. Qualification 1-3 comprises bullet-riddled human silhouettes taken from a police firing range. And Silhouette 1-3 is notable because the figures on the targets seem to be female. After shooting the targets, Wells adds bright blue polygons whose corners are the bullet holes--surrendering that formal decision to the shooting process, which is always to some degree out of control. Though as an artistic practice it's limited and slightly gimmicky, it does point to a more acceptable use for guns than killing people.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Professional Courtesy" by James Rosenquist, and "Silhouette 1-3" by Lee Wells.