March 5 through August 30, 2021
By MATT R. LOHR, March 2021
“Everyone has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see.” With these words, Andy Warhol kicks off America, his 1985 volume of photography that aims to encapsulate, through images of celebrities, street culture, and architecture, the contradictions inherent in that opening epigraph. Fantasy America, an exhibit for five emerging New York-based artists at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum, greets a moment at which the national battle between actual and fantastical threatens to erupt into a full-blown shooting war, while the devastation wrought by COVID-19 has discredited foundational assumptions of exceptionalism. Though the bulk of the works presented here predate this past year, their reverberations strike sometimes paradoxical chords within our current national elegy.
The nine silkscreens by photographic artist Nona Faustine seem most directly engaged with our fraught political circumstances. Working from her own photos of national monuments and tourist attractions, many celebrating figures whose commemoration seems increasingly dubious, Faustine marks these scenes of whitewashed history with her own disruptive gashes of pigment. A vertical slash of red virtually obliterates the controversial monument at Columbus Circle, and 2019’s In Praise of Famous Men No More similarly obscures an equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, since removed after public outcry over the piece’s colonialist overtones. Faustine’s colors re-privilege the pain brushed aside at these loci of nationalist pride, and she rallies us to apply this process to our present with Oh No the Devil Never Ever Lies (2020), Faustine’s crimson scarring a TV-news screenshot of Donald Trump’s tear-gas-enabled Bible-hoisting photo op at Washington’s St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Multi-disciplinary creator Chloe Wise also references the Trump administration with her digital film Alternative Facts (2020), featuring Wise gleefully watching herself, on a portable TV, reciting Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway’s notorious truth-trashing statements. The TV sits oceanside, the formless waves evoking the indeterminate character with which this past administration attempted to brand the notion of objective fact itself. Another pair of Wise films, Offer ending soon and Message me (both 2015), engage in Warholian manipulations of the white noise of American advertising discourse, presenting beaming actors reciting, respectively, Cheesecake Factory menu copy and user profiles from the extramarital-affair-enabling Ashley Madison website. Wise’s works in other media foreground a prescient fixation on hygiene and desire for purification. Her Protection Benches offer sterile office-carpeting-style upholstery and built-in tissue and paper towel dispensers, while a pair of 2019 oil paintings present pristine models flanked by figures bearing bottles of hand sanitizer.
Following a year that has found many of us starved for amusement and communal spirit, Kambui Olujimi’s multimedia works challenge the illusory consolations of those distractions. A 2014 trio of digital prints from his Blind Sun photography series feature entwined dancing figures, superimposed over light-streaked images of architecture elegant and ramshackle by turns. The series, inspired by the Depression-dance-marathon-themed novel and film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, conjures the incessant, dispiriting dance by which America’s impoverished keep themselves afloat. T-Minus Ø (2017) features thirteen wall-mounted flags, each bearing internet-sourced images of deadly failures in the U.S. space program, emblematizing the frequent national fetishization of grand-scale public tragedy. Still, Olujimi offers hope for escape via a pair of ink-and-graphite creations from his North Star series. These fanciful images depict people of color suspended balletically in space, no longer bound to earth by the constant cargo imposed by systemic racism. Olujimi is currently crowdfunding an extension of this series, in which he will bring people of color onto a parabolic flight and then chronicle on film their experience of weightlessness.
Any exhibition that hopes to capture the tenor of this instant must carve out some space in which to mourn, provided here by lens-based artist Pacifico Silano. Composed of photos collected from vintage gay magazines, the desaturated colors and frequently obscured faces of Silano’s layered collages brings hushed, contemplative atmospherics to images initially deployed as celebratory. Silano’s work grapples with the incalculable suffering wrought by AIDS, and that level of loss, enabled by top-down institutional abdication of duty, is one with which the whole of America has become familiar since last March. When confronted with a scale of death comparable to several major American wars combined, it can be easy to neglect the reality that these massive numbers represent hundreds of thousands of individually important lives. Silano’s The Meat Rack (2019) eloquently visualizes those lives in its depiction of a cowboy hat, abandoned by its unseen wearer, balanced precariously upon a spread of bare tree limbs. The presence of this iconic item of American apparel drives home the singular scope of the American pandemic, and the exhibit binds Silano’s work to the queer deployment of cowboy imagery by presenting it alongside a pair of Warhol portraits of cowboy-hat-sporting actor Dennis Hopper.
Finally, Tel Aviv-born performance artist Naama Tsabar is represented by Stranger (2017), a video work which, with its very title, calls to mind how the past year has turned us into a nation of several hundred million isolated islands. The piece’s pure-white background is redolent of the hospital spaces in which far too many Americans have spent far too much time of late. Tsabar is joined by a female companion, both clad in black and white, as they tussle, tangle, and twist together while conjuring a dense, sawtoothed drone from a custom-designed double-faced silver electric guitar. The music, composed by Tsabar, is an ideal soundscape for a time of endless not-much-to-do and nowhere-to-go, and the deliberate monotony of the music, paired with the color-stripped palate, could threaten to construct a monolith of enervated alienation. But the intimate shuffle and push of the musicians’ bodies throughout the feature-free space serves as a reminder of the human capacity for carving connection from the most straitened circumstances. It’s a perversely hopeful vision, suggesting in its way that strangerhood is but a state of mind, even in America, and can be overcome if we’re willing to put our shoulders to it and press on, even against encroaching nothingness.
Thanks to José Carlos Diaz and Charlene Bidula of the Andy Warhol Museum for their assistance in preparing this piece. WM
Matt R. Lohr is the co-author of Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure. His writing on cinema, music, and the film industry has appeared in the magazines JazzTimes, Living Blues, and Produced By; in the book A Companion to Martin Scorsese; and on the official website of the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. After over a decade in Los Angeles and a brief sojourn in Dublin, Ireland, Matt currently resides in his (and Andy Warhol's hometown) of Pittsburgh, PA. When he took the Andy Warhol Museum's "Which Warhol Superstar Are You?" quiz, his match was Ondine. Follow him on Instagram at @mattrlohrview all articles from this author