Thursday, May 17, 2012

Seeking America's Future in the Past: An Art of Flags and Hummers

I begin this blog post with a comparison of two images, each a detail of a work of art. One is the front console of a Hummer H2, curiously exposed to the open air; the other is a ghostly image of an American flag over some gold, stenciled letters. What these two images have in common is that, radically different as they may be, they are by the same artist.

Jeremy Dean, CEO Stagecoach, 2010, detail

Jeremy Dean, Hero/Hostage, 2012, detail

This past March 8-11 was Armory Arts Week in New York, an extravaganza of contemporary (and some older) art from all over the world spread throughout Manhattan.  Among the exhibition venues was VoltaNY, located on West 34th, across the street from the Empire State Building, where I went on that Saturday two months ago.  As I wandered through the gallery displays at Volta, which took up the entire 11th floor of the building, I saw a familiar name: Jeremy Dean, a Brooklyn artist, being represented there this year by the Cynthia Corbett Gallery.

I remembered Jeremy because of a single, unique work he displayed two years earlier, also during Armory Arts Week (at the Pulse Art exhibition, as I recall).  That work was a radically modified Hummer H2 automobile sporting two shafts for hitching horses where the engine compartment ought to have been.   More about this piece later.

Jeremy’s new work exhibited this year is based on the American flag, but a flag that has been completely disassembled.  Dean meticulously separated the flag’s warp and the weft threads.  He then affixed each individual thread to two needles that hold it tautly above its support.  The warp and the weft threads are mounted on separate supports and displayed as a diptych.

Because the horizontal and vertical threads no longer weave together to produce an opaque fabric, each set appears somewhat transparent.   At the same time, each set retains the recognizable pattern of the flag, albeit in a somewhat ghostly version. Taking advantage of this phenomenon, Dean has placed another image directly on the main support, below the taut threads. This enables the viewer to read both the image on the support and the ghostly flag floating an inch or so in front of it.

Jeremy Dean, Hero/Hostage, 2012
The Corbett Gallery displayed five such diptychs by Jeremy Dean at this show. The largest of these was titled Hero/Hostage.  In this diptych, we easily read the gold letters, stenciled below the threads of the flag: “Hero” on the left panel, “Hostage” on the right one. But, to what, if anything, do they refer? Might Dean be alluding to John McCain, who had been a hostage during the Vietnam War and, once freed, was hailed as an American hero?   I suspect not. At least, were this the case, it would seem more effective had Dean titled the diptych, “Portrait of John McCain,” thus evoking those Dada portraits in which a simple attribute stood in for the person, as in Picabia’s Portrait of Stieglitz.

Francis Picabia, Portrait of Stieglitz, 1915

Might Dean’s diptych allude to the dual nature of America’s involvement in our recent “wars against terrorism,” in which our heroic efforts to bring American democracy to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan have bogged down and become hostage to our own naivete and overreach?   Again, I suspect not.

Jeremy Dean, Destiny, 2011

Maybe a look at a second of Dean’s works exhibited in the Corbett Gallery booth may offer some clues. Destiny again shows the two flags, this time pinned over a global map of the continents of north and south America on the left and of Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia on the right. The title seems to refer to our nineteenth-century concept of Manifest Destiny, the inexorable expansion of Anglo-Saxon rule across our entire continent; only here the concept encompasses the continents of the entire globe.  The elaborate, circular frames, with their carved eagles, intersect to form the symbol of infinity, which may allude to the expanding scope of America’s (manifest) destiny, at least in the mind of some of our more jingoistic citizens. 

Still, even though the flags cover most of the earth’s continental land masses, they are transparent, not opaque. Their cover is thin, not unlike our recent global military operations.  Documentation provided by the Corbett Gallery states that his work addresses “social, political, economic and cultural issues and questions the notion of modernity and human progress” and then quotes Dean, who says “I feel that the extreme polarization that we are currently experiencing: socially, economically, and politically, is literally rending the fabric of America, so this work is a physical representation of the state of the Union.”

So, Destiny, indeed, alludes to a jingoistic application of American manifest destiny across the entire globe.  Not that Jeremy Dean is endorsing this concept; rather, he is exposing it to critical assessment by dint of his deconstructive process.  Process is the key to Dean’s art.

The laborious process of separating the threads of an American flag reveals the meaning of his work.  This is not some sort of intellectual “deconstruction,” which is how this word is used--and overused--in so much contemporary art jargon.  It is a literal deconstruction, in this case a tearing apart of the American flag.  And because the flag is such a powerful symbol, these pieces speak to the rending of our social fabric.

Dean’s flags, therefore, are much more than a mere appropriation of a familiar design pattern.  In this manner, they differ from the famous flag paintings of Jasper Johns.

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55
Johns’ flags were seen simply as examples of the continuity of image with surface, an idea that had been applied mainly to the color field painters of the 1950s; in their works, as critical analysis would have it, figure and ground became one and the same.  Thus, Johns’ Flag is all flag (image) at the same time as it is all ground, there being nothing else but the flag, laid on thickly in encaustic (pigmented wax).   In contrast to Dean’s work, Jasper Johns’ Flag bears no hidden meaning.  In Johns’ words, his use of the familiar design of our flag “took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it.”   His flags can be seen simply as paintings, or conversely “as a flag and not as a painting.”

Scott Tyler, What Is the Proper Way to Display a Flag?, 1989
In another comparative example, greater meaning might be found in a particular work of art that also incorporates the American flag: here, the flag itself, not a representation of it (Johns), and not deconstructed (Dean).   I refer to a 1989 exhibition in which Scott Tyler, a student at the Chicago Art Institute, exhibited a piece titled, What Is the Proper Way to Display a Flag?   In it, he asked viewers to record their thoughts about the display in a book on a shelf hung from the wall.  To write in this book, however, the viewer had to step on an actual American flag spread out on the floor in front of that shelf.  Responding to complaints about flag desecration, the City of Chicago filed a lawsuit which eventually was thrown out when the judge wrote: “when the flag is displayed in a way to convey ideas, such display is protected by the First Amendment.”   Tyler’s flag piece, of course, was intended to be confrontational.

Jeremy Dean’s flag pieces operate on a much more subtle level than the in-your-face challenge of Scott Tyler’s piece, and they are intended to convey deeper meanings than the flags of Jasper Johns.

Now, if we return to Hero/Hostage and consider its actual subject--not in art, but within the broader purview of American culture--we certainly can find examples of the flag being associated with both heroes and hostages

911 Flag of Honor/Flag of Heroes
For example, visitors to the 9/11 site in New York City are confronted by a flag on which all the names of the 9/11 victims are contained in its stripes, and they can purchase a facsimile of this flag.  It is called the “Flag of Honor/Flag of Heroes.”

Hermitage, PA, Hillcrest Memorial Park, Avenue of Flags

In another example, flags have also been associated with hostages, as in Hermitage, PA, where an “Avenue of Flags” has been assembled to commemorate the American hostages held in Iran between 1979 and 1981. It consists of 444 flags, one for each day of captivity. 

Jeremy Dean’s deconstructive art is a commentary on contemporary American culture.   Whether working with our flag or with that outlandishly inefficient Hummer H2, Dean re-contextualizes an iconic American artifact to draw attention to social, political, or economic aspects of our country.

Jeremy Dean, CEO Stagecoach, 2010
In this photograph, we see Jeremy in Central Park, standing in front of his sculpture, CEO Stagecoach.  He sees this work as part of a more extended project he calls Back to the Futurama.

As in his flag pieces, Dean’s CEO Stagecoach is also created by a process of deconstruction.  If you open this url, you can see a two-minute video that captures some of the process of deconstruction (i.e., modification) of the Hummer H2.

New York World's Fair 1939-40, GM Pavilion, Futurama Diorama

The Futurama, of course, was the main attraction inside of the General Motors Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40. The pavilion and the ride were designed by Norman Bel Geddes to offer fair visitors a vision of the world of 1960 with automated highways that connected all parts of our country and a streamlined and symbiotic merging of buildings and roads that created a new and dynamic urban fabric.   In an optimistic embrace of a future of abundance and wealth, Bel Geddes, in his book, Magic Motorways, boasted that “a free-flowing movement of people and goods across our nation is a requirement of modern living and prosperity.”

Back to the Future [movie], DeLorean Time Machine

It is this unbridled optimism that Jeremy Dean challenges when he creates his CEO Stagecoach. And with his more general title, Back to the Futurama, he also evokes the 1985 movie starring Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future, featuring a much more sexy automobile, the DeLorean, which Lloyd’s Dr. Emmett Brown had converted into a plutonium-powered time machine.

Jeremy Dean, CEO Stagecoach, 2010, on Central Park West, NYC

As the father and champion of streamlined design,  Bel Geddes would not have thought too highly of the boxy and ungainly H2.  In fact, he would have viewed its design features as an affront to his ideas of a type of evolution of “essential forms” that were based on the function of the automobile.    In essence, by linking Bel Geddes’ GM Pavilion of 1939 with his modified, horse-drawn Hummer H2 (first produced in 2002), Dean promotes a form of technological devolution that undermined the motivating force of optimism behind the New York World’s Fair and traded it for the pessimism that permeated the previous decade, that of the Great Depression. 

As Dean writes in his blog post, people in America’s rural south could not afford gasoline and so “cut the car in half, attach[ed] poles to the front and hitch[ed] it to a horse. The resulting contraption became known as a “Hoover cart” after President Hoover who was blamed for the depression.”  By creating a new version of the Hoover cart (might we call it the George W. Bush cart?), Dean questions the contemporary values of a country that would embrace a four-ton, 9-mpg, pollution-belching, mechanically-plagued vehicle.  To quote him: “So with our very American idea of Manifest Destiny, we meddle in any country that has oil and send our men and women into harm’s way so that we can continue consuming almost 80% of the world’s resources. But how long can that last?”

Fortunately, the last Hummer, the H3, rolled off the line at Shreveport two years ago, on May 24, 2010. But, as Daniel Gross of Slate reminds us, it was neither inefficiency nor fears of global warming that led to its demise: “Driving the biggest, baddest, least-fuel-efficient car on the planet was tantamount to giving the finger to environmentalists.”  He goes on to note that, even Ari Fleischer suggested that people who drive giant cars “were not only exercising some fundamental right of citizenship but proclaiming American exceptionalism.”

Jeremy Dean, CEO Stagecoach, 2010, coachman's view, Central Park, NYC
The Hummer, Dean wrote, was “the symbol that best personifies the arrogant, unsustainable, indulgence of the last era and the inevitable downfall.” Although Dean rightly focused on the 1939-40 World’s Fair, he would also have found a similar technological arrogance alive and well in the next GM Futurama ride at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.   Here visitors looked down on the moon, crawling with “bases of communication and supply” with “man, building his first bridgehead in his span of space.”

Amazingly, some Americans still can’t let go of such jingoistic dreams of competitive control.   Recall how Newt Gingrich, less than four months ago, boasted to a crowd of adoring Floridians how, “by the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the Moon. And it will be American.”

John Chamberlain, Hillbilly Galoot, 1960, on view in Guggenheim Museum
Just as his deconstructed flag pieces, which are elegant creations that carry a subtle, yet powerful commentary about American culture, so Dean’s CEO Stagecoach is an elegant creation that masks an equally powerful message.  If we think of examples of the automobile in sculpture, most likely we first think of John Chamberlain (a major show of his work just closed at the Guggenheim Museum).  But his work exists on the same level as Jasper Johns’ flags--the level of formal statements.  He makes pleasing and evocative forms by welding together crumpled bumpers and fenders from automobiles.  Chamberlain’s sculpture is really a sophisticated offshoot of the process of assemblage that first emerged from Picasso’s early synthetic cubist experiments of ca. 1912-14.

HplusF, Hummer House, 2012, plan

To the extent that the boundary between sculpture and architecture has frequently blurred, I have found an architectural design which shares an uncanny relationship to Jeremy Dean’s deconstructed Hummer.    Craig Hodgetts and HsinMing Fung, principals of the LA architecture firm, HplusF, have designed a prefabricated “micro-home” made from Hummer parts.  Given the fact that somewhere over 355,000 Hummers were built and sold for civilian use, the Hummer House offers an intriguing alternative to our wasteful McMansions and a potentially positive response to our housing crisis. 

Zak Stone calls this house “a fitting end for this poster child for American waste and excess.”                    In much the same vein, Dean summed up his “Back to the Futurama Debut” with these words in a blog post of March 21, 2010:

“It [CEO Stagecoach] is a total rebuke of the American idea of Manifest Destiny, that the whole world and all its resources are exclusively ours for the taking;  it becomes a moment for course correction, if we will take it.  It is a warning to America that we can no longer live beyond our means, consuming at an unsustainable rate, sacrificing long-term investment for short-term gain, piling up debt, destroying the environment, and resting on our past successes, believing that our country's noble and historic beginning will continue to save us.”

In the eyes of some, the Hummer House may be a more welcome and likely solution for recycled Hummers, I can’t help entertaining the delightful and ironic possibility of Dean and HplusF joining forces to create a “Back to the Futurama community” of Hummer Houses and CEO Stagecoaches--a “modern” takeoff on Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House and Car, which the latter first envisioned in 1929 as a tandem for modern living.  Now, this really 
would take us back to the future.

Cedar Knoll Farm's Percheron Draft Horses, Duke (on left) & Diesel (on right)

I can’t end without offering a final photograph that I took in Central Park two years ago to honor the wonderful horses of Terry and Elaine Joseph at Cedar Knoll Farm in Lisbon, CT. Duke is on the left and Diesel on the right. Later that year, they pulled the Snow Queen float in the Macy’s Day Parade, with Joan Rivers aboard.

Sadly, Duke died last year; he was kicked in the forearm by a pasture-mate, resulting in an irreparable break.  I dedicate this blog post to Diesel and to the memory of Duke.

Jeremy Dean, CEO Stagecoach, Central Park, NYC, Sunday, March 21, 2010

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