Michael St. John, I’m a Child of Divorce, Gimme a Break
At Cynthia Broan gallery, Michael St. John presents a solo/group show hybrid featuring eight of his own works (five paintings and three sculptures) and works by eleven other artists. It’s not a new idea–Jessica Stockholder did something similar last year, less effectively–but its execution is distinctive. St. John’s inclusion of nine other artists in his "solo" show parallels his use of appropriated images (hundreds of them, culled from an endless variety of sources): they’re both integrated and respected, questioning artistic autonomy but not individuality. Highlights include Suzanne McClelland’s sensually spiraling vortex painting fringed with newsprint titled 000 (Condoleezza) with the name "Condoleezza" in the center, Elizabeth Olbert’s impish Goodboy, Joshua Weintraub’s stylish abstraction it retrieved neither us nor itself, and Adrian Ting’s minimalist painting Hippopotamus of a hippo in Ellsworth Kelly-esque color. Champneys Taylor absurdist video of a casually sculpted paper blender on a turntable, Mixer, is laugh-out-loud funny.
St. John’s three sculptures are all conceptually similar, 3-D sculptures of conventionally 2-D cultural artifacts: a Nike Swoosh (presented on a heavily collaged plinth), a crowned Basquiat character’s head, and Richard Prince’s Playboy bunny skull motif–the execution of each takes the merely clever idea into ingeniously perfect.
The paintings are comprised of scores of images, mostly photographs, neatly-cut from a multitude of sources (news, porn, drawings, history, popular culture, newspapers, art history, contemporary art, snapshots and photos of images off of a television screen) which are glued, stapled or taped to the surface of the painting (often at the top and curling out slightly, revealing hints of photos underneath) and accompanied by passages of paint, 3-D objects (a pair of flip-flops or craftsy fabric balls, for instance), and sculptural elements (a sculpture of a penis in one painting, for example, and a golden "Jesus fish" in another). Participating in the tradition of the "combine," they’re compositionally madcap, obsessively formalized bulletin boards as realized by a demented Dr. Franken-Mondrian, referencing the conventions of slick web design and channeling a spectrum of imagery that may be the Internet’s own subconscious, suggesting the overlapping cut-outs as just so many pop-up windows.
In one painting he juxtaposes Alfred E. Neuman with an image of Martha "What Me Worry" Stewart–the two smiles eerily similar–and crops A. E. Neuman with a photo of bananas bearing an American flag sticker–evincing a sense of humor that seems right for a world where digital artifacts like Viking Kittens (http://users.wolfcrews.com/toys/vikings) are termed "classic." It’s a commentary on St. John’s and Rauschenberg’s use of popular imagery and americana; their more iconic brand of pop assemblage seems impossible, inappropriate and merely sentimental now.
A peculiar inversion occurs in these paintings: the glut of cultural imagery becomes the detritus of a life lived. The pop characters take on qualities of personal obsession, becoming idiosyncratic, and the autobiographical ones seem no less conventional (genre-based) or communally recognizable. All of the images become imbued with associations that are variously personal and universal, but above all specific–assiduously mapping a Borgesian labyrinth of personal/cultural signifiers.
He demonstrates that an image itself can be what Roland Barthes, with regard to details within a photo, called the "punctum"–as in one painting, A Perfect World, Just Do it, where a high-school yearbook photo of a young Michael St. John is strangely affecting. Used as self-consciously generic trope, it’s still also genuinely touching as an autobiographical element.
Similar to the sculptor Sarah Sze, Michael St. John sees the world as a conglomeration of discreet objects and images, each semiotically complex and ambiguous; our visual mode is to select (as in the essence web navigation: pointing and clicking) or how Warhol made "liking," therefore choosing things, his essential technique. Their art models the phenomenology of looking for something (a particular pen on a cluttered desktop, for example) but multiplies this effect, imbuing each element with a self-renewing aura of being "found" while frustrating the associated finality with a compositional system that is at turns chaotic, intuitive, analytical and formal.
At the very end of his epic encyclopedic novel Underworld, Don Delillo presents this trenchant paragraph: "Is cyberspace a thing within the world or is it the other way around? Which contains the other, and how can you tell for sure?" It seems that this question now, Michael St. John suggests, has replaced the old saw "between art and life:" the implicit interstice filled totally and opposites conflated. Like Don Delillo, Michael St. John approaches the historical currents of politics and culture through the lens of individual, subjective experience and investigates the major role that images play in shaping–the final term in these equations–our lives.