What if Abbie Hoffman had been cryogenically frozen after his suicide in 1989 and was then brought back to life again now? I’m pretty sure this icon of counter-culture idealism and integrity would simply kill himself again, and Alex Gross’ amazingly engaging and sardonic paintings at Jonathan LeVine Gallery would help explain why. Branding seems to be the focus in this show and branding has become the core of the new world-wide ideology, superseding all forms of humanism and creating its own faux humanism – the humanism of the satisfied and pacified buyer of expensive ego-stroking crap. Since the 1960s we’ve been riding the moral curve downward and consumerism has been the gravitational force.
No Logo by Naomi Klein is, in my opinion, still a must read. Her book revealed that branding is almost mystical in its effects, yet totally empty in its content. A product’s brand exists to help the consumer lose his or her identity under the rubric of a product identity. A product’s brand can create an aura that consumers want to connect to and reflect as part of themselves. I am a Starbucks’ patron, a Mac user, a Gucci buyer, etc. Each of these brands confers something extra to the often bland personality partaking of the goods. By choosing your brands wisely, however, you can exist beyond reproach and, indeed, become the judge and jury of those who simply have failed to realize the importance of dedicating one’s life to competition, greed and self-blindness.
In ‘Drones’ we see the sad effects of a culture dedicated to narcissism and hedonism and oblivious of ethical values or the search for meaning. The smiling broadcasters cheerily report on the latest drone strikes, Obama experiences a type of ecstasy of self-glory, a sheep passively looks on.
In ‘Shopaholics’ the brand buyers are sheep-headed and surrounded by vultures, as if the shoppers have little to offer the world other than flesh to be consumed, someday, by carrion. Or are the shoppers ignoring this vanitas theme – recognize your mortality, repent, do penance, prioritize your values, see and engage the world and strive for meaning.
Abject nothingness registers on the face of the girl in ‘Candy Crush’ as she is tuned in to her handy electronic syringe of saccharine junk. In ‘Distractions’ we are confronted by our peers who never learned to say “NO!” and who see little to be upset about. In ‘Service Industry’ we see the professional deformation that occurs among those who cater to our needs, as a quite debonair Yul Brynner puffs his way toward lung cancer (he made a TV commercial attacking cigarettes before dying) and Bashar al-Assad lurks in the background.
This is a must-see show. Gross strikes at the heart of many things that are rotten in our society and does so with wit and moral strength. This is the kind of social satire that hearkens back to the New Objectivity Movement of Weimar Germany while exhibiting a more Frankfurt School critique of contemporary culture, showing how Gramscian ‘hegemony’ and the cult of consumerism walk hand in hand.
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