By PAUL LASTER, Jan. 2018
A conceptual artist whose best known work is related to the recently revised Neo-Geo and Infotainment movements of the late-1980s and early-‘90s, Howard Halle is currently the subject of a solo show presenting a number of his seminal pieces at Elizabeth Dee in New York. Whitehot recently spoke with the artist about the historical context for his media-appropriated and commodity-oriented works.
Whitehot Magazine: Your exhibition “Return to Graceland, Works from the '80s and '90s” presents a body of work that's specific to its time while also appearing to be timeless. Can you tell us about art historical context in which you created these pieces?
Howard Halle: Well the ’80s, of course, were the era of Ronald Reagan. In fact, this body of work began not long after his re-election in 1984. His campaign slogan for that year was, “It’s Morning Again In America,” which suggested not so much a return to the past as it did a supplanting of the present with a simulacrum of the past. The euphoria of that motto struck me as false, since my own eyes told me that things were going in the opposite direction. (We all know by now that this proved to be the case.) And the idea that you could turn back the clock with impunity wasn’t limited to politics or to society at large: It was apparent within the currents of the art world at the time, which, after all, was a period of revivalism—Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo, etc. While it isn’t always the case, stylistic revivals tend to signal a conservative turn in the culture, and I think that was certainly true of the context in which this work was originally created. Still, it wasn’t really about Reagan or even political in the way that most people think of “political art.” It came out of my reaction to a reactionary moment. But it also reflected other, congruent concerns.
WM: The earliest works in the show—a group of 15 untitled drawings and 4 vertical diptychs that mix gouache illustrations with striped abstractions, both from 1985—share a cartoon style of representation. How did you come to this graphic way of referencing reality and what were you after in these particular works?
HH: The images are all hand-painted appropriations of 1950s political cartoons done by the same artist. (A larger image on a wood panel propped up on an old exercise treadmill shares the same source, though in that case, the image had been silkscreened.) I made them look like the originals, though I removed all the captions that went with them. So they’re just kind of there in a vacuum. I remember seeing editorial cartoons like them in my hometown paper as a kid growing up in the ’50s. So I thought they’d make good metaphors for what was happening at the time I was creating the work—namely, the attempt to drag the country back to a supposed normalcy before the upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s. Just like today, in fact, though such a prelapsarian past never existed then or now.
In retrospect, I think that’s one reason why I elided the texts from the original cartoons: It rendered them mute, and in that respect, I think they echo the void that exists where this Norman Rockwell vision of America is suppose to be. The other reason I removed all traces of the cartoons’ original meaning was to clear a space for alternative narratives that delved into how we contextualize history, memory and personal agency. I tried to create those narratives by doing things like juxtaposing the images, as I did in the 15-panel piece, or pairing them with formal devices (as in the diptychs with stripes). Eventually, I introduced objects like the treadmill. That move into three-dimensionality ultimately took the work beyond those particular cartoons.
WM: You have another piece utilizing silkscreened imagery of cartoon eyes on a big brass plate that’s reflecting a potted artificial bamboo plant and an installation piece with two large photographs of a cartoon of a Persian pasha dreaming of naked women and booze, with the framed photographs resting on a traditional Persian rug. What’s the storyline for these works?
HH: The image silkscreened on a brass plaque came from a how-to book on drawing anime. It’s a character sheet, as animators call them, for various eye expressions. Character sheets establish a set of graphic standards for animators to follow while working on a cartoon. It’s a form of regimentation, which somehow reminded me of the way people are regimented by society, or more specifically, by capitalism. So I guess I was thinking about how, when you enter a corporate office, there’s usually a big brass plaque with the company’s name on it, and also usually a plant nearby. I added this visual punch line of putting the plant in front of the eyes, so that they seem to stare out of a jungle or something. That’s a common cartoon trope—eyeballs following you in a dark room or forest. Also, when I was growing up, there was a TV show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which had this recurring bit of a Nazi in a helmet behind a fern, pulling it back ominously to utter the catch-phrase, “Very interesting.” It made no sense, but it felt emotionally true or true in memory, which made it funny in a paranoid way sort of way. Recalling stuff like that, I started to get interested in the psychological resonances of power dynamics—the personal behind the political, so to speak.
WM: Is that true for the other piece, too?
HH: Yes, in the original cartoon (from a 1940s men’s magazine) there’s this pasha character trying to get aroused by fantasizing about all of the different women in his harem. But he doesn’t get excited until the notion of having a sandwich and beer pops into his head. It was risqué for its time, and was probably interpreted back then as something like, “Hey, this guy has his pick of women, but all he wants is a beer; I’d never do that, ha-ha!” But I saw it as this idea of male fantasy as a self-subverting proposition. In a way, that makes more sense now than it did 30 years ago, with the bill coming due on all of these sexual harassment cases. And of course there’s Trump, the ultimate alpha-male wannabe, who’s actually a victim of his own fantasy—becoming President—coming true, which I think explains his erratic behavior in office.
None of that was happening when I made the work. I think in retrospect, I was bouncing off something Vito Acconci once told me: That failure was more interesting than success. You can see that in a lot of his work, especially in Seedbed, where he’s hidden under this wooden platform; you can hear him start to masturbate whenever someone steps on it. The viewer becomes the object of his fantasy, but since he doesn’t know whom he’s fantasizing about, there’s this disconnect. That’s my reading, anyway, but I think the ramp in that piece may have informed my installation: Two large framed photos propped side-by-side on this angled platform covered with a fake oriental carpet that seems to be floating. And the bottom corners of those panels sit on small tasseled pillows that echo the one that the pasha sits on in the image. So both of these pieces are transitional, but they link to the earlier work because I’m still basically taking a cartoon and writing a new caption for it using concrete objects.
WM: The two pieces in the show from 1989 seem to shift to domestic situations, with Patio Table (a round, steel table with an umbrella with words like faith and unity) and Graceland I (a steel window gate with a linear image of Elvis from Jailhouse Rock). I remember you also did a window gate with a linear image of Bob Hope on it that was shown at Dee in the exhibition “Every Future Has a Price: 30 Years After Infotainment” last year. What made you go in this household direction?
HH: Actually, the Elvis outline you refer to is a replica (about half-scale, I’d say) of the images welded to the gates at Elvis’s Memphis home: Graceland. Their centrality to a show I did in the late ’80s at a SoHo gallery run by Doug Milford is the reason I named this current exhibition “Return To Graceland,” though the Milford show itself wasn’t titled. The Milford exhibit also included the pasha installation and the patio table piece, which also has a yellow and white umbrella.
But let me back up a bit. The first sculptures I did after moving on from my earlier drawings was a series of fire escape gates on which I had a fabricator weld caricatures in steel bar stock of Alfred Hitchcock and Bob Hope. There were three of the former and one of the latter. The Hitchcock image was the better known, thanks to the title sequence for his ‘50s TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where he’s seen walking into a set of curving lines that abstractly depict his profile. Meanwhile, the caricature of Bob Hope on the gate you saw in “Infotainment” was also used on television—for Hope’s USO specials during the ‘60s, when he was entertaining the troops in Vietnam. So both Hitchcock and Hope used caricatures of themselves as branding. Initially, I think I was playing off this idea of random TV memories from a suburban childhood colliding with the harsh, urban realities of New York, where a lot of windows have bars. But in looking back at those gates, I can see something that I didn’t when I made them, which is that both men represent problematic relationships with women: Hope because he adopted a horn-dog persona for the “Road” picture he did with Bing Crosby; Hitchcock, because he famously abused actresses on his sets. Eventually, those pieces led to the Elvis gate and to the patio table.
WM: I remember seeing that show in Doug’s space on Broadway, but weren’t there two Elvis pieces in it?
HH: Originally, there were two Elvis pieces, the one in this show and another coated with rust. Milford’s gallery had a freestanding wall dividing a smaller front room from a larger one in back. It was open on either side, with spaces narrow enough to completely close off one with the rusted gate. The other gate, which had been sandblasted to virgin steel, was hung on the wall next to where you entered the main part of the gallery, where most of the work, including the patio table, was. So I had this idea of the viewer entering a metaphorical Graceland—the one where Elvis wound up OD’ing while sitting on the john. The pasha installation was in the front room, so in that context it was kind of a prologue echoing Elvis’s dissolute condition in the years leading up to his death. The deal with Elvis, I think, is that he had become trapped in this gilded cage that was Graceland and also the fame he felt he could no longer live up to.
So all this crazy stuff was happening within this metaphorical Graceland. I had a set of doors with a Wile E. Coyote shaped hole in it, as if he’d blown through the gallery chasing after the Roadrunner. Then there was this big wall piece, which is unfortunately lost, consisting of three park benches mounted one above the other like Donald Judd boxes. The one in the center had this wooden effigy I bought at a cigar store—not an Indian, but a drunken hillbilly holding a liquor jug with XXX on it. I laid it on its back and covered its face with a copy of a magazine from the period called Memories, a nostalgia title marketed to baby boomers. I happened to live near Tompkins Square Park, which had been taken over by a tent city of homeless people back then. (That tent city was later demolished by the NYPD under Mayor Ed Koch, precipitating the Tompkins Square riots.)
WM: Did that have any impact on your work?
HH: I suppose I was thinking of a homeless guy on a park bench, catching a snooze, when I made that piece. But again, what’s salient in hindsight is this notion I mentioned before of failure being more interesting than success. In the Milford show, it’s failure rather than success that becomes the defining quality of the American dream, manifested in stuff like never being able to catch the roadrunner, being viewed as a nothing by society, or being at the height of fame one day and suffering an ignominious death the next. The fear of becoming a loser or of being seen as a loser is as an essential ingredient to what we call toxic masculinity today. Every master of the universe is scared of failing or not keeping up with the Joneses, so no amount of money or sex or luxury is ever enough. You always have to win or dominate all the time to maintain power. That leads to some bad behavior. Toxic masculinity, a term which wasn’t around when I made the work, is really just another way of describing how a lot of American men think they’re supposed to act.
WM: What about the patio table?
HH: The patio table was in that same room. It turned out to the last ironwork piece I did. It’s based on this image I found in a book of a flyer posted around the UC Berkeley campus by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973. A year later, they kidnapped Patty Hearst. So the piece is about that episode, and its form is based on the flyer, which had the SLA’s famous seven-headed cobra symbol encircled by various communitarian-sounding expressions—Unity, Self-determination, Collective Work, etc. There were seven in all, in English and Swahili. The table itself was suggested by the fact that when SLA broke into Hearst’s apartment to capture her, they came in through the patio. So the top of the table has the SLA cobra rendered in pieces of welded steel, while the words from the flyer were painted onto the flaps of the umbrella.
The amazing thing, as I discovered much, much later, is that those words, which I recapitulated in a series of customizable mailbox signs, are the same words that form the basis of Kwaanza. Now I had no idea of this at the time. Television stations weren’t running Happy Kwaanza messages back then, and quite frankly as a white person, I was ignorant of Kwaanza, as I suspect most white people were at the time. Ron Karenga, an academic, activist and founder of a Black Nationalist outfit called US Organization in Los Angeles after the Watts Riots, invented Kwaanza in 1966. Karenga’s group vied with the Black Panthers for control of the Black Power movement and they wound up in a shootout—at UCLA!—in which two Panthers were killed. Karenga served a prison term for that. Again, I knew nothing of this when I made the patio table. I began to look it all up about five years ago, when I was going through old slides of my work and suddenly saw the connection of the piece to Kwaanza.
I have no idea how that connection came about, but I’m guessing it had something to do with the SLA’s leader, Donald DeFreeze, who was African-American; the rest of the SLA was white. When the Hearst kidnapping was actually going on, I read in the papers that DeFreeze was from my hometown, Cleveland, Ohio, and for some reason (probably because it was rare for anything relating to Cleveland to wind up in the national news), I filed that information away in my head. The Elvis gates were likewise inspired by something personal: I was in Memphis a week after Elvis’s death, and there were still tens of thousands of fans pouring through town. It was like visiting Lourdes.
WM: How did Patty Hearst’s story play into the scenario?
HH: With the Patty Hearst kidnapping, you have this story of a rich heiress falling into the hands of a band of aspiring radicals, creating a subtext of black versus white, rich versus poor—and family. Small groups like the SLA are, essentially, surrogate families; Hearst came from a rich family, which she temporarily renounced when she joined the SLA as Tanya. In a way, the link to Kwaanza—which is, after all, a family holiday—underscores the point. But, of course, it all ended badly for the SLA, which had an incoherent raison d’être to begin with. To this day, I don’t think anybody knows what “Symbionese” is supposed to mean or whom it was trying to liberate. Whatever the case, their mission failed spectacularly when they died in a televised shootout with the police. Meanwhile Hearst, a member of a .01 percent, skated unharmed. Still, DeFreeze, who called himself Commander Cinque, and Hearst, who called herself Tanya, where part of the same American story of trying to re-invent yourself and build a new sort of family around you. So I’d say the patio table piece accelerated the shift into the theme of home that my work began to take.
WM: Were all of these pieces assisted readymades or did you personally craft them?
HH: All of the work after the drawings are essentially assisted readymades of one sort or another.
WM: I like your use of ornamental mailbox signs and bells with such phrases as “The Personal Is The Political” and “Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow.” These pieces and other works in the show seem to fit right into the commodity art dialogue that was prevalent during that time. Did you identify with that movement?
HH: No, not really. While the mailbox signs were commodities (when I first used them you’d get them through a mail-order catalog; now, of course, you’ll find them online), I wasn’t interested in celebrating or fetishizing the new, which I think was the key element of commodity art. If anything, the signs were about the opposite since they were sold as ersatz Americana. They looked to the old, not the new. If there’s an overlap to what you refer to, it’s in the words themselves. I sort of thought of them as commodified sentiments of one sort or the next. By the early ’90s, for example, the phrase “The Personal Is The Political” had become something of an artifact or consumable.
WM: Where does the phrase “Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow” originate?
HH: “Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow” is from a song by George Clinton, so in the sense that pop music is marketed, so, too, are the lyrics. Other phrases I used came from the titles of self-help books, which are the product of an entire industry devoted to self-improvement. And the idea of self-improvement is itself an outgrowth of the American experience, consistent with the ethos of re-inventing yourself and pursuing happiness.
There’s a lot of anxiety underlying self-improvement: If you don’t feel happy while pursuing happiness, you run the risk of failing as an American. Or so we’re constantly being told, subliminally or not. Actually, and not to get too political here, that relates to the current reactionary project to completely dismantle the social safety net. The thinking behind that is, if you’re a loser, you deserve to be, so don’t expect a handout.
But ultimately the signs stem from my interest in agency—who has it, who doesn’t and how it’s channeled by memory, psychology and larger cultural forces.
WM: Has revisiting your art from the past motivated you to start making work anew?
HH: Well, first off, I never felt that I abandoned my art practice, at a least not in the sense of completely quitting after the body of work in this show. I spent the years between 1991 and 1995 working on a single installation that was eventually shown at the Washington Project For the Arts and the Boston ICA: A piece that also had a biographical component in the form of the Holocaust, a event which shaped my family history. But it also dealt with the overarching theme of my work—the intersection of history, agency and memory. After that, I worked on and off over the years on what I’d call visual thought experiments, things I’d probably never show anyone. But recently, even before this show, I embarked on a new project, which I hope to exhibit at some point. I’m not going to discuss the particulars, though I will say that much as my efforts between 1985 and 1995 focused those aforementioned themes through the prism of my formative years, these new works will do something similar based on my experiences as an art critic and art-world observer over the past 20 or so years. Hopefully, it won’t be as dull as that sounds. WM
"Return to Graceland, Works from the '80s and '90s" remains on view at Elizabeth Dee through January 27, 2018.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author