System Overload

Transforming the junk pile of culture into something ominous, investigative, and visionary

Walking through Justin Faunce's auspicious debut I kept wondering, "How close can you get to your enemy before you become your enemy?" In 1982, Fredric Jameson wrote about the "stifling, canonical monuments one has to destroy to do anything new." These days we're not as fixated on progress or as committed to destroying monuments—at least not our own. For his part, Faunce is so wrapped up in what he apparently wants to wipe out that it's not clear if he's making what Jameson called "imitations which mock the original" or if he's being celebratory, or both, which is a distinct possibility. The finickiness and decorativeness of his work only contribute to these questions. At times I couldn't determine whether or not his paintings weren't inadvertently becoming part of the problem. Nevertheless, Faunce's work is visually scintillating. We see clusters within clusters, images within images—what Baudrillard called "Moebius spiraling compulsions." Journeying into one is like exploring some sort of self-replicating CNN-MTV molecule. Looking at his paintings can make you feel like you have a hundred eyes.

Faunce's large-scale kaleidoscopic canvases of thousands of finely rendered, subtly altered, symmetrically arranged corporate logos, trademarks, pictures of the dead and famous, and a plethora of appropriated images look like psychedelic sea anemones, circus posters, or explosions in the image bank of post-war culture. In Thanks for All the Memories we see a naked J.Lo coming out of a wedding cake surrounded by twin Jessica Simpsons, fighter jets, allegorical figures of Liberty and Justice, oil rigs, surveillance satellites, and a mushroom cloud. It's Dalí meets Rosenquist on ornamental amphetamines. Emperor Tomato Ketchup features a cartoon ketchup bottle sitting on a throne in front of the New York Stock Exchange with twin NASDAQ JumboTrons on either side, a Bernini in the background with various Vegas casino billboards, and two Michael Jacksons in Che Guevara berets. These works echo Tibetan mandalas and old rock album covers like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Cream's Disraeli Gears.

There's also the gee-whiz factor. Although he's only 25, Faunce's skill level is already off the charts and approaching the current high-water marks of Benjamin Edwards and Lane Twitchell. Every area of every work has been painstakingly taped out and hand painted. Everything is close to perfect. At times I found myself transfixed, thinking, "I can't believe someone actually made these." This connects Faunce to an all-male, hyper-skilled wing of contemporary art that includes such artists as Twitchell (whose dazzling new paper-cutout paintings are on view at Greenberg Van Doren), Edwards, Lari Pittman, Ashley Bickerton, Fred Tomaselli, Simon Periton, and Takashi Murakami. Erik Parker fits in here as well, although he's far funkier.

Thanks for All the Memories (2004)
photo: Robin Holland
Thanks for All the Memories (2004)

As with many of these artists, Faunce's meticulousness is spiked with a keen political sense. He's attempting to transform the junk pile of culture into something simultaneously ominous, investigative, revelatory, and visionary. Like the Situationists, he wants to disrupt our read of everyday reality. He doesn't want to kill the messengers of consumerism; he wants to reanimate them with an avenging energy. In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord (whose name Faunce has included in an earlier painting) wrote, "Spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life." Faunce takes this totalizing moment, tries to defrag and refragment it, and turns it into something that is overloaded and overflowing so that just looking at these paintings starts to feel volatile and dodgy.

The effects are flashy and captivating, even if Faunce's strategy is a classic postmodern one. It dates back to writers like Jameson and Baudrillard and artists like Richard Hamilton and Martha Rosler, who subverted popular culture with popular culture, as did Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, both of whom brilliantly utilized collage to raise dissenting voices against nascent totalitarianism between the wars. Faunce's fixation on what Adorno famously called "the culture industry" is less petulant or querulous, but his feel for glut has a seditious undertow.

Something else in Faunce's favor is symmetry. Each canvas is divided along a vertical bilateral axis like a Rorschach blot. Almost everything on the left is repeated on the right. Interestingly, this symmetry is not identical but mirrored: Images are painted one way on one side and reversed on the other, so that the paintings' centers act as folds that everything is either slipping in or being generated from. This makes the paintings feel like they're robotically re-engineering themselves or being governed by a higher order or a law that is organizing things. Usually, symmetry is a neutralizing compositional device. Faunce is finding ways to destabilize it and turn it more dangerous and visually dynamic.

Promisingly, this can be seen in the most recent painting in the show, Ars Gratia Artis, a towering beauty that features an Emerald City of Washington Monuments, buildings on fire, and white elephants. This canvas suggests that Faunce is offsetting the symmetry by integrating compositions and creating more dynamic wholes. He's also refining his process. If these tendencies continue, it could be stirring to watch him fight his way through the sticky wickets he's established for himself. In the meantime, allow yourself to be transported to some hallucinatory, rococo place just by gaping at these imagistic dynamos.


jsaltz@villagevoice.com

 
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