At its heart, pop art explores consumption. How do we as a society, especially an American society, allow consumerism to be a driving force in our existence? Seattle Art Museum’s Pop Departures fully captures that spirit of consumer culture criticism both through the acclaimed masters of the genre and fresh modern extrapolations of what came before. It’s not so much a history of a pop art as a rich exploration of its open-ended timeline.
While the exhibit intentionally lacks a through narrative, the first few segments of the exhibit have their own strong thematic pushes. Pop Departures begins with Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strip-inspired paintings and John Chamberlain’s sculptures. When shown together, they present an intro to the contrasting nature of the genre. Lichtenstien’s sharp, colorful works like Bratatat showcase subtle subversion though heightened examination of familiar pop cultural imagery, while Chamberlain’s violent, gnarling twistings of steel of shred the American obsession with the automobile. There’s a wild contrast in the force of the works, yet the pairing is effortlessly natural.
Next on the agenda comes Andy Warhol, the man whose iconic shadow looms over the very phrase pop art. The playful side of his dissection of celebrity is on display with images of Elvis (Double Elvis), Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn), and the side-by-side juxtaposition of Richard Nixon (Vote McGovern) and Chairman Mao (Mao Tse Tung). However, the most impressive Warhol piece is Jackie, a two-toned, blue and black portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the wake of her husband’s assassination. What makes the piece so striking is the pure sorrow it effortlessly conveys. There’s a heavy emotional weight that other Warhols can’t touch due to their intentional frivolity.
The gallery then transitions into a look at overblown commodification. The glowing signage of Robert Indiana’s The Electric EAT and Claes Oldenburg’s ludicrous four-foot long Giant Wedge of Pecan Pie humorously illustrate repulsion at a growing sense of societal gluttony that began to fester in the 1960s. The next room jumps ahead chronologically to the 1980s at looks at the exploitative oversexualization of that began to arise. Mel Ramos takes shots at the world of advertising with two lithographs of nearly pornographic attempts to commercialize Coca Cola (Lola Cola) and spark plugs (AC Annie) by having women provocatively drape their bodies across the mundane products. The absurdity of sexual obsession is furthered via Jeff Koons’s large porcelain figures St. John the Baptist and Pink Panther. When depictions of the holy figure and a topless woman embracing the cartoon icon are displayed in an offset manner, it strips them both of any sense of morality and enters the realm of satirical farce.
After those first four segments, Pop Departures collection begins to wander without specific grounding in singular ideas, but some of the more modern works on display pack an even fiercer punch. Josephine Mecksper’s mixed media sculptural collage American Mall delivers both largest and the most symbolically dense piece on display in the exhibit. Originally designed for the Mall of America, the work teems with cultural criticisms, from the masculinity of muscle cars and a trophy tie rack to the one-armed mannequin representing a victim of modern warfare. But American Mall’s key element isn’t in the various tchotchkes on display, but rather the mirrored backdrop. It makes the viewer’s reflection to be part of the instillation, forcing a connection to the troubling consumerism on display. Additionally, Mexican artist Margarita Cabrera ponders real downside of the capitalist push through her sewn vinyl recreations of products, most notably a somber, deflated yellow Volkswagen Beetle, that plays off her homeland’s history with manufacturing the automobile.
Pop Departures’ most transfixing work comes near its tail end in the form of Mickalene Thomas’s Hair Portrait #20. Inspired by Warhol’s celebrity repeated portraiture, the 30-panel piece depicts a black woman’s face in rhinestones. Each portrait plays with saturation of black and white shades; some of the rhinestones glisten like rainbow glitter against an eggshell backdrop while others panels are barely visible with black rhinestones set against a black backdrop. As a whole the images glamorize celebrity to a degree even beyond Warhol’s prints; it’s a shiny display of fame even more fitting for the star-obsessed culture of idolization we’ve become. The only oddity of Hair Portrait #20 is how Thomas leaves the subject of the piece unnamed despite it almost assuredly being Lauryn Hill (one of my friends perfectly dubbed the piece, “The Missed Dedication of Lauryn Hill”).
Pop Departures is by no means an encyclopedic cataloguing of the pop art movement, but the breadth of work on display is able to capture the genre’s thoughtfully scatterbrained brilliance. Pop art is not a moment confined to a space on the artistic timeline, but an ongoing continuum of cultural examination that lets us see our values reflected back at us in all their simultaneous ugliness and beauty.
Oct 9–Jan 11, Seattle Art Museum, $20