:)by Gail Quagliata
THE HOLE NYC | JUNE 10 – AUGUST 6, 2011
Magic, Luck and Friendship: the very idea has been trademarked by Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III, founders of the commercial art collective with the most affable moniker around. The collective’s current exhibition, titled simply :), extends FriendsWithYou’s New York City “cultural ambassadorship” tour and irrepressible good cheer into the Hole’s new space on the Bowery. In the hands of a less gleeful empire, the concept of claiming ownership of such benevolent terms might seem rather deplorable, if not openly nefarious, but in this instance it feels quite right.
The exhibit features a series of subtly to overtly anthropomorphic figures created largely out of geometric abstractions, from “giggle sticks” to “smiling puddles,” advertising a giddy sense of humor that could cause uptight, enchantment-impaired detractors to label this work vacuous entertainment, or, worse, purely commercial. Gazing at the irrefutable optimism depicted in these glossy candy colors and wee winks and smiles, it is difficult not to refer to Takashi Murakami’s Superflat movement, and the associated (total bringdown) criticism that the work is little more than lowbrow, pop-concepts thrust into a highbrow arena. The artist is accused of simply skillfully creating a recognizable, trademark-worthy product (a la Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, or Jeff Koons). FriendsWithYou takes commoditization a step further, by existing as a commercial entity that produces “designer toys” and other decidedly high-end, lowbrow goods; this flies in the face of the bizarre logic that authentic artists should not actually make money intentionally.
At first glance, much of the work could be viewed as a celebration of formal sublimity, until the added dimension of a rudimentary face staring back at the viewer becomes undeniably apparent. FriendsWithYou create literal friends with you, the viewer, transforming austere art objects into relatable entities. Are these “splat-happy wall works,” (to quote their makers), swirling, grinning heads, and supermassive inflatable atomic candy-like creatures the blithe new mascots of art? The tall, thin vertical beam painted in fat, glossy white and red horizontal stripes—that, in the FriendsWithYou universe, serves as one in a herd of “giggle sticks”—could function in any other gallery space as minimalist sculpture. It could be a staid study in color, space, and technical precision, were it not for the subtle addition of what a tuned-in viewer sharply perceives as round black eyes and a tiny, coy mouth at the very top of the form, transforming an inert object into a tall, thin Friend, guarding over the massive, inflatable Friend quietly humming adjacent. Several pieces contain kinetic elements which serve only to highlight their creatural qualities, rendering them something like rather absurd, high art versions of those kitsch Kit-Cat Klocks®, with rolling eyes and gently buzzing electronic innards.
Stripped of this gleeful context, several of these pieces could be perceived as anything but living creatures. The show’s titular work, :), depicts a field of thick, precisely wrought, eye-melting black and white lines streaming vertically down the vast expanse of the frame, interrupted in three crucial instances by much shorter horizontal black lines. To the anthropomorphically minded, clearly, these are the eyes and mouth of some living being. But couldn’t this just as easily exist as some formal meditation on the purity of the line, an ultra-rigid homage to, say, Frank Stella’s Black Paintings? It is in this odd space between hyper-Formalist FINE ART (in all caps) and collectible, accessible FUN ART that FriendsWithYou rests comfortably.
There is something defiantly unpretentious about every piece in :), an overarching sense that FriendsWithYou (as a company, art collective, and glorious alternate universe) actually practice what they preach in terms of playfulness as unquestioned gateway to pure creative expression. Quite naturally, some of us may even wish to fall into a cheery “smiling puddle,” in the hope that there will be some joyous, FriendsWithYou-style art world existing blissfully on the other side.