Lights, Camera and Memes – Art in the Age of Digital Immediacy

February 20th, 2021  |  Published in January/February 2021

The Night Gallery is a gem within the maze of LA’s Industrial District. “Headlines” by Derek Boshier and “Screen Time” by Luke Murphy and Christine Wang are two exhibitions on view (by appointment) through March 13. This review will focus on the latter but the juxtaposition of the shows is worth noting. Both seek to patch together different pieces of media puzzles. Boshier began his career during the British Pop Art Movement of the 1960s and “Headlines” is clearly the work of an experienced artist. The dark, monochrome lines of this collection of drawings generate surreal, patchwork visions of a worldly barrage of the images and messages plucked from newspapers and magazine headlines. The drawings — which are sort of collage-like — exude some darkness, but they’re perplexing enough that I’m not quite sure that I want to label them as critical of the subjects gathered by Boshier. The exhibition feels like the work of someone who passively takes note of said headlines at the beginning of each day before proceeding to work. One drawing juxtaposes two silhouettes of heads. The left snaps people in the act of gardening while the right contains a deluge of floating guns, perhaps to comment on gun violence or the prevalence of guns in rural American life.

“World News #20,” though, complicates a reading looking for criticism. Here Boshier compiles images of flowers, three unassuming women chatting with a gun on their table, varying athletes, and a woman photographing the viewer. The drawing disorients. The photographer highlights the panoptic loom of media in modern life. I’m not all that sure what to make of these images; they remind me of the newspaper montages in “Citizen Kane.” They grant enough clarity to make out the headlines but they’re too obscure to read the stories. The lack of a color palette allows the drawings to emulate a collage of newspaper clippings from days past. Next to Murphy and Wang’s work, then, the drawings look like art from a past era.

 

Derek Boshier, “World News #20”, 2019

Wang and Murphy, like Boshier, attempt to make something of cultural bric-a-brac. For them, however, the work reflects the digital age. Wang and Murphy forego the newspaper clippings for the vibrant colors of Internet memes. The format can be a vessel for dark, sardonic and sometimes bewildering absurdist humor. Simplicity grants them an immediacy to encapsulate social and political discourses on social media, where they can go viral. They touch on issues like mental health, climate change and sobriety. Wang is responsible for these meme paintings, vividly reproducing the Internet ephemera in Impressionist style. Murphy supplements the paintings with jagged, multicolored LED sculptures. For me, Boshier’s work wasn’t surprising. It resembled artistic threads that are embedded in my critical consciousness. They look like drawings that I would expect to see in a gallery. Wang’s memes made me scratch my head. At first I thought that we should be keeping gallery culture separate from Internet culture, but I fear that that would be like saying we should keep politics out of gallery culture. I was, and I remain, skeptical – but I can’t say that I didn’t get a few chuckling insights.

The exhibition blurb claims “Murphy and Wang consider the omnipresence of the screen without dogma, addressing its cultural and perceptual implications with a sense of humor and an appreciation of unexpected beauty”. I’d counter that these pieces challenge the viewer by forcing age old questions about art, particularly what we should grant artistic value and why. Murphy and Wang, of course, want us to take the content seriously. Of course, adjacent to work that looks at home, visitors might be hesitant to grant the younger artists satisfaction. Boshier’s drawings build a sort of quiet power and disorientation while Murphy and Wang emphasize digital immediacy and flare. Rather than wading through obscure lines and angles, Wang presents reproductions of images exactly as they were. She asks the viewer to respond as if they’d encountered the memes on Instagram. Her memes interpellate the viewer’s confrontation with digital immediacy that, unlike Boshier’s passive media consumption, bids you to figure it out then and there. One painting, for example, delivers a bi-partisan condemnation of politicians by juxtaposing who it calls “Professional Looters” with “Amateur Looters” from Black Lives Matter protests last summer, highlighting the irony that accompanies the condemnation of the amateurs. A political argument is distilled into one image.

Christine Wang, “Looters”, 2021
Acrylic on canvas
96 x 72 in

The pointed irony of Wang’s memes continues by grappling with millennial attitudes toward climate change. They attack their subjects with sardonic humor, rather than dress them in artistic obscurity like one might find in someone like Boshier’s work (this, of course, might also say something about the level complexity – or lack-thereof to be found). One painting presents a speculative map of the United States on November 3, 2032 – a presidential election. The image outlines Florida’s current coastline, but the state itself is blue – hence the punch line, “Florida Finally Turns Blue”. It’s a headline many of us would be happy to see, but the image insinuates that climate change – not politics – will be responsible for rendering Florida blue. Another painting reproduces an image of two horses (“me” and “you”) lying on a bed of grass (“the internet”) and watching an exploding volcano (signifying “earth dying”). The image itself is rather bizarre. If the volcano wasn’t erupting, the image resembles stock MacBook wallpapers. Of course, the environmental critique herein is exemplary of the sardonic absurdity of meme culture.

Christine Wang, “Florida”, 2021
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 48 in

Both images might be both comforting and depressing. On one hand, they depict a degree of acceptance of the probability of climate catastrophe, granting a sort of freedom to make light of it. Wang chose memes that might bring catharsis for people unwilling to believe that we’ll be able to adequately address the climate crisis. Of course, that acceptance isn’t easy to achieve. Both memes reflect the structure of feeling that finds ordinary citizens who feel powerless in the face of climate change. Older generations were able to spend most of their lives without thinking about the planet unless the natural world was of personal importance. Younger generations hear about it every day in news media, in advertisements and in political campaigns (and in Los Angeles, especially during fire season). These memes reflect constant uncertainty toward the future of the natural world. They also reflect a distrust of the institutions that got us where we are, assuming that (harkening to the “Looters” image) those in power wont fix anything. Wang’s memes highlight the tense duality between an advanced technological society and a crumbling planet. Sadly, or comfortably, the horses of you and me watch that tension powerlessly with the Internet as a comforter.

Christine Wang, “Volcano”, 2021
Oil on linen
48 x 48 in

Murphy’s sculptures, then, further emphasize this tense duality. They almost look like geological structures that could be found somewhere in the arctic. One, in particular, includes a tree branch as a part of the sculpture infrastructure. Importantly, that branch – like the environment – serves to prop up and sustain the surrounding technological structure. The sculptures are plated with LED lights that, like the meme paintings, channel vivid color palettes. They could conceivably be found hanging from the ceiling of nightclub. On the ground might be a different story. They’re fragile like the environment that they tenuously reflect. They look like they’re always at risk of toppling, like the logs in a fire constructed by an inexperienced boy scout. The LED lights are vivid and plucky while the constructions themselves allude that if this exhibition were a party, it might perpetually be at risk of being busted by the cops. The sculptures supplement the paintings. In doing so, they visualize the fragile backbones hiding behind the infrastructure of a technological world that – in the events of climate catastrophe – will topple with the planet.

Luke Murphy, “Field Sign”, 2020
Discarded Xmas tree, steel studs, aluminum wire, LED matrix panels, video driver hardware, software, power supplies, PC, code
91 x 35 x 9 in

When I teach Freshmen Composition sometimes I keep a ration of memes in case my group is particularly quiet. Memes can be puzzling. They can also be indelible cultural artifacts of an increasingly digital culture. They get students talking because they relate to and understand the absurdity and immediacy of the images. Despite my desire to imbue my students with fine works of literature and criticism, sometimes memes hold the power to help young college students unlock the study of rhetoric. The questions raised by Wang’s memes, however, transcend the value of memes as a teaching tool. I’m not sure they belong in a gallery, and though Wang is clearly a fine painter, I don’t see any semblance of what might be her style. Unlike Murphy’s supplements, Wang’s talents seem overpowered by the content of her source imagery. Of course, it’s perfectly valuable to ask what does and doesn’t belong in a gallery because we’ve been doing that for years. Wang may be decentering herself purposefully. If we step back we might decide that Wang’s subjects are frivolous throwaway snippets that can stay in their respective bizarre corners of the World Wide Web. And yet, we might also decide that – whether we care for them or not – memes are quintessential pop art for the digital generation.

–Josh Beckelhimer

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