By MARK BLOCH, March 2019
A curvy black phallic serpent against a blue and pink background. Mind blowing references to Organic Hotep Sex Oil. Cartoony paintings of balloon animals reminiscent of Jeff Koons sculptures appearing in various skin tones from Hello Kitty pink to dark brown.
Elizabeth Axtman operates at the edgy intersection of race and humor. The multimedia artist has said, “As the daughter of an Afro-Panamanian mother and German American father, I play between representations of both, through performance.” Axtman uses celebrities, pop culture clichés and stereotypes and familiar current events as proxies, stand-ins for a daring “performance of the self.” Then she weaves the viewer into the mix, turning her collaged meta-depictions of societal accusations and confessions into spectacle, approaching great big topics in relatively small works.
We live in potentially explosive times. With anxiety and rage simmering underneath every suggestion of race, gender and politics as a topic of discussion, Axtman seems to be dancing across the minefield of our social media landscape, reflecting back awkward contradictions. Most of the issues that she takes on in her work wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss at work or in certain types of sensitive gatherings, despite the seeming inevitability of them popping up in such places not just often, but constantly, leaving all of us slightly jittery and battle fatigued.
Axtman’s work speaks for itself, loudly, trudging boldly into emotionally charged circumstances of great consequence to the black community, risking or maybe even guaranteeing that she might not keep the peace—with either whites or people of color, male or female. Not just race is tackled; so are relations between men and women.
Speaking of tackling, Axtman’s favorite subject seems to be O.J. Simpson, who is seen here all dressed up in his Heisman Trophy–winning pose but always wearing miniature white Ford Broncos on his feet for shoes. With Orange Is the New Black Netflix's most-watched original series and collecting critical acclaim as both drama and comedy, it is tough not to recall both O.J.’s original trial and two different successful TV dramatizations of it as he floats in a sea of oranges.
In another image, Childish Gambino wears the O.J. Bronco shoes, poised to shoot in his provocative “This is America” stance but with goofy bug eyes neutralizing the seriousness. He aims at an image of O.J,, similarly bug-eyed, as if to say, “Get your money, black man” before Simpson heads off to jail.
Orange revolves around a woman in her thirties sentenced to time in federal penitentiary for a drug bust, after she had moved on to a quiet, law-abiding life among her upper middle class friends. Episodes feature flashbacks of events from various inmates' and prison guards' backstories, just as Axtman takes us through various well-known racial upheavals in the form of pop culture tropes stretching back decades.
Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is seen flanked by OJ supporters. That film was a parody of the racism swept under the rug by myth-making Hollywood accounts of the Wild West, with a black sheriff hero showing up in a confused all-white town. Brooks had many conflicts over content with studio executives, including the over-the-top usage of the N-word. Brooks said he received encouragement to do so from Richard Pryor, his co-writer, and Cleavon Little who played the sheriff. In 2012 Brooks said, "If they did a remake of Blazing Saddles today they would leave out the N-word. And then, you've got no movie."
A collage cutout of Drake performing "Hotline Bling," reminds us of his vulnerable, hurt, neglected, and disoriented persona in that 2015 video even while he's calling out his girlfriend for leaving. The inclusion of that video image also brings to mind the work of artist James Turrell whose work appears there. That in turn reminds me that Kanye West recently donated $10 million to support Turrell's work, perhaps just to annoy Drake with whom he is feuding. Axtman’s Kanye is seen near Tiger Woods, both of them sandwiched between images of Simpson, one in his Bronco, the other in a golf cart.
Then Simpson is seen in another image with his family, to the right of Bill Cosby with wife Camille, with all of them about to be engulfed by a brush stroked wave. Another wave or maybe a painted rainbow threatens twin images of Chloe Kardashian’s head on Jeffrey Dahmer's body elsewhere.
Finally, topping Simpson’s violent story, Jeffrey Dahmer makes a few haunting appearances. That American serial killer took the lives of 17 mostly African-American men over the course of 13 years, luring them from gay bars, bus stops and shopping malls to his home where he strangled them and engaged in sex acts with the corpses.
Writing about Axtman’s powerful images reminds me of Bamboozled, a year 2000 satire by Spike Lee about a post-modern televised minstrel show featuring black actors who don blackface makeup that results in violence when the show becomes successful. The film was a brilliant attack on the use and misuse of African-American images in pop culture, but as film critic Roger Ebert said about it, “many viewers will leave the theater thinking Lee has misused them himself."
Axtman is not afraid to take that risk. She cuts out popular myths about race from headlines, literally and figuratively, and collages them with black celebrities who lives have turned tragic, onto her roughly painted surfaces to unveil again and again a well known narrative: that people of color receive messages telling them they are “less than” for the crime of being born in a racist society, one that thrives dementedly on outsider music, style, stories and dress for fun and profit while it continues to pump out coded hatred and hostility or at best, extreme confusion.WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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