First Class / Second Class

ASYA GEISBERG GALLERY | MARCH 31 – MAY 7, 2011

Detail: Holly Jarrett, “Pigs Palace,” 2011, wood, fabric, panel, and mixed media, 95˝ × 70˝ × 100˝.

Class is a topic conspicuously absent from our national discourse, being antithetical to our foundation myth. First Class / Second Class, the group show currently on view at Asya Geisberg Gallery, seems as good a place as any to start. While the controversies of the art world may not necessarily project deeply into our American conversation, a gallery is a business—as Geisberg herself pointed out to me last week—and therefore has a more pressing need than a museum to bridge the gap between commercial viability and those topics which a moment ago were too-hot-to-handle.

The only sculpture in the show, “Pig’s Palace,” by British artist Holly Jarrett, is a plywood shed that mimics the walls of a teenager’s bedroom pasted with cut-outs of Justin Bieber and Robert Pattinson, as well as some grotesque heads with (for anyone who’s seen the devastating BBC comedy Little Britain) Vicky Pollard side ponytails. The piece underscores the idea that for the discarded industrial class, a denuded mass culture looks pretty much the same everywhere. The Britishness in the piece actually revolves around a teenaged fetish for Burberry plaid—a luxury brand providing a sad stand-in for culture, much the way Tommy Hilfiger and Coach do in the working class neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

Photos of the denizens of a trailer camp by Chris Verene provide a shock of reality to contrast with the images of the American proletariat in the (most likely) middle-class viewer’s head, culled from sources like 8 Mile. It makes the viewer think about how every social blight is perverted by our culture’s loving depiction of it, from poverty to heroin chic à la Fiona Apple and Kate Moss. If jazz and modern dance go by the wayside, the ability to glamorize absolutely anything will remain as our native genius.

Brian Shumway’s portraits of young black women dressed up and trying to claim glamour for themselves exude a sense of pathos that the outwardly plucky subjects of Verene’s photos do not evince. Rebecca Morgan’s cartoon-drawings bring up yet another emotion often aimed at the poor: disgust or contempt. Her somewhat Robert-Crumb-like subjects—outlandish hillbillies with buckteeth, sagging bellies, and reddish hair—seem to be a meditation on the artist’s own attitudes and how far she can push them and confront their ugliest manifestations.

The only representation of the “first class” in the show—and I was glad to see it—are the fantastically hideous, almost allegorical photos by Miles Ladin of Nan Kemper and other society ladies, who look like hungry harpies. It’s an extraordinarily pungent comment on vanity and starvation in the midst of obscene plenty.

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