Dwelling in Ambivalence: Pungent Dystopia at Freight + Volume, NYC

Michael Scoggins, "Right Again?" (2010), marker, colored pencil on paper, 
10h x 51w in (25.40h x 129.54w cm). (All images courtesy of Freight + Volume)

Pungent Dystopia
Freight + Volume  
March 19 - April 19, 2020 (indefinitely extended) 
97 Allen Street
New York, NY 10002

The diverse selection of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper in the group show Pungent Dystopia, currently on view by appointment at Freight + Volume, amounts to a fresh visual language of engagement in the midst of our ever-precarious contemporary society. Viewers of these works would probably like to be able to claim blamelessness in light of the world's most recent ills; to feel that while they may not be an active part of the solution, at least they may be sure they're not part of the problem. This logic contains a fallacy, of course. So this exhibition exposes how we dwell in ambivalence. 

Karen Finley, "ImPEACH Dreams of Ivanka Trump III" (2020), ink on paper, 
9h x 12w in (22.86h x 30.48w cm).

We too often prefer to passively wait "until it's all over" and we can feel that things have magically become "right again," as Michael Scoggins succinct condensation says. Scoogins fabricates an enlarged fragment ripped from ruled notebook paper. Hanging like a wreath of distinction above the rest of the show, this piece could be torn straight from the transcript of any New Yorker's interior monologue in 2020. 

 David Baskin, "PUBLIUS" (2020), inkjet print, 
43h x 33w in (109.22h x 83.82w cm).

Artist David Baskin's large inkjet print "PUBLIUS" stacks one historical presidential portrait on top of another, until (as he puts it) "...the images become distorted and the paper saturated..." These strangely morphing facial features multiply out of their black grounding with an hallucinatory, psychedelic quality. It eerily brings to mind the machine learning visualization experiments of Google's "DeepDream" computer programming circa 2015.

The bronze cast sculpture on a plinth—"GEORGE," as in former president Mr. Washington—is also Baskin's. It has been diagonally sliced, which invites comparison with any number of defacements that many other statues of controversial public icons have suffered during years of social upheaval. Sliced GEORGE would seem to be a commentary on the specter of technological supremacy that hovers around us at all times. The cut itself seems terrifyingly immaculate, like a graphic glitch in the very fabric of reality itself: way too sharp and exact to be made by the human hand alone. 

David Baskin, "GEORGE" (2020), cast bronze, silver nitrate patina, polish finish, 
12h x 20w x 10d in (30.48h x 50.80w x 25.40d cm).

Alternatively, Nora Griffin's handprint on a small, lush blue- and green-dotted triangular canvas seems to suggest human touch can never fully be erased or suppressed. In Griffin's larger, more imposing diamond-shaped painting, "Conspiracy," the postcard-sized, realistic icon of a monkey punctuates what might otherwise be called a purely abstract constellation.

Nora Griffin, "Conspiracy" (2020), oil and modeling paste on linen, 
40h x 50w in (101.60h x 127w cm).

Becky Brown has rearranged a stream of New York Times headlines into playfully incisive satire on the bizarre, and ultimately dangerous, viral populism of the internet. It's a subversive affirmation of Big Data's ownership over our lives. Works such as these might appear somewhat dashed-off, but Brown's artistry valiantly represents a unique visual awareness—something viewers would do well to cultivate themselves, so far as they continue to partake in a naive convenience culture.

Becky Brown, "Lost in the Digital Swamp" (2020), digital print, 
28h x 18.50w in (71.12h x 46.99w cm).

Karen Finley's text-based, ink sketches are both calligraphic and diaristic, expanding on themes relating to the commodification of sex, pornography, and their tie-in with patriarchy. Her works manifest an obsession with the apocalypse, and infantilism. One almost wonders if Finley doesn't feel some affection toward the subjects of her invective: an undeniable fascination, the inability to look away, despite how disgusted she feels. This shades into the notion of a dark pleasure, or Smut, the title of a work by Peter Gallo, which evokes dirt, religiosity, cultishness, food, pigskin, brutality, animality, our collective id that we like to hide in the name of propriety.  

Peter Gallo, "Smut" (2020), oil, acrylic, jute twine on plywood, 
26h x 30w in (66.04h x 76.20w cm).

The dehumanized figure with dangling teats in Bel Fullana's painting All Inclusive could be a stand-in for the iconic she-wolf that mythically suckled, nursed and sheltered the first kings of Rome, Romulus and Remus, the Empire founders. It's a scene from inside the cave of Lupercal, with the stark cartoonishness of sex as a cave painting: lyrical and boldly crude. In other works we glimpse the rot of empire as it trickles out in piss, as in Chris Toepfer's large-scale painting, Melania, where the effigy of the current president drives a luxury car through a landscape blighted by industry, visibly delighted that a naked woman is pissing on his car. 

Bel Fullana, "All Inclusive" (2019), acrylic paint and spray on canvas, 
64h x 51w in (162.56h x 129.54w cm).

Chris Toepfer, "Melania" (2017), oil on canvas, 
44h x 36w in (111.76h x 91.44w cm).

The intimate, snapshot-like portraits of Emilia Olson are bathed in smokey grays, white and blue impasto. Contrast that with the raucous flesh-tones, black holes, hearts and parachute forms excavated by Nicholas Cueva in the painting Full House on Fire—one of many works in the show that sings the praises of the painterly hand. Rebecca Goyette's shit-faced storybook monsters dress in corporate attire and appear childlike: totems of sex, power politics, and dollar signs transmogrified into parodic icons. The sense of dark humor at work here is another vital theme by which all the works in the show are thematically bound.

Emilia Olsen, "The Clown" (2020), oil on linen, 
10h x 8w in (25.40h x 20.32w cm).

Nicholas Cueva, "Full House on Fire" (2020), acrylic on fabric, 
36h x 30w in (91.44h x 76.20w cm).  

Rebecca Goyette, "Pungent Dystopia Served" (2020), colored pencil on water color paper,
9h x 12w in (22.86h x 30.48w cm).

Pungent Dystopia's solution to [insert crisis here] involves fervent deconstruction, regurgitation, reordering, and remodeling through purely artistic means. One is constantly reminded of our dehumanizing loss of privacy, our hyper-sexualized commodification of everything (environmental catastrophes, pandemics), and the preponderance of man-child dictators in their attempts to seize power globally. WM

Ben Tripp

Ben Tripp's writing appears or is forthcoming with BOMB, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail, Guernica and Full-Stop Quarterly.

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