China Art Objects, Los Angeles, California, May 24 – June 21, 2008
Nearly two thousand years ago, in 79 ad, the Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed and buried by two days of lava swells and volcanic ash from Mt. Vesuvius. Among the ruins, the city’s excavation in 1860 unearthed cavities formed by the bodies of residents trapped within the lava, their burned voids fossilized by the hardened ash. Plaster casts from the cavities reproduced the population of Pompeii, but no longer as an organized citizenry. In the face of apocalypse, the might of Romanum imperium would fall away into a frenzy of crawling children, gnarled dogs and clinging lives—no more than passing, pathetic bodies after all.
The phantom of the buried city is invoked throughout Los Angeles-based artist Jonathan Pylypchuk’s recent exhibition at China Art Objects, in the uncanny convergence of apocalyptic landscapes and banal lives, a final teenage “fuck off” before the end of the world.
Pylypchuk was born and raised in Winnipeg, where he was an original member of the city’s celebrated collective, the Royal Art Lodge. Though his paintings, collages and sculptures retain some of the wintry enchantment associated with the Lodge, they belong predominately to the lineage of Georges Bataille-ian abjection that found expression in the late 1980s and ‘90s with seminal “abject” (and fellow la) artists like Mike Kelley. Yet where Kelley approached his abject bodies with the calculated distance of a Freudian with his test subjects, Pylypchuk enters the protocols of abjection from within. His characters—wide-eyed animal people, stick figures and sometimes distressed clouds, all cobbled from combinations of twigs and paper, fake fur and old clothes—forge some kind of meager existence amid an indifferent world. He continues to develop this world here with a series of large multimedia paintings and two cast metal sculptures.
The scrappiness of the pieces provides the context for abjection, but the real pathos comes from the relationships they depict. Disillusion is implicit in illusion; Pylypchuk suggests that the faith that can conjure a human form from a t-shirt scrap also endows that being with the capacity for betrayal. His compositions are fraught with the implosive tension of a situation perpetually on the brink of collapse, psychically as much as materially. Much of the tension lies in the awkward intimacy of the scenes. In “Lake of Fire” (2008), a meteoric swirl of neon orange and earthy brown looms behind two tiny figures in the foreground, with patchwork bodies and tufts of fake, furry hair. “Don’t go around cursing people” (2008) shows three figures in a similar situation; in paper text bubbles, one states, “you can’t go around cursing people” while the others respond with “well you sir are in fact cursed as well” and the dismal “remember me for having lived an honorable life, sweet world.” In both works, the figures seem to struggle with their sense of inadequacy by thrusting it upon one another in a crosscheck of demoralization.
The emotional charge of the exchange is reiterated in the intensity of the painted surface. The soft, sheer colors that stained the wood-grain skies of Pylypchuk’s earlier works have given way to churning reds, oranges, purples and greens encrusted with coarse, multicolored splotches—like the sediment on an ocean floor, or society’s unassimilable debris. If Pylypchuk owes any debt to Abstract Expressionism, or what Harold Rosenberg in a 1952 Art News article famously called “apocalyptic wallpaper,” it’s via the supernatural hells of Hieronymus Bosch. Against an atmosphere that seems to bow under its own pressure, the figures bare their emotional wounds; they argue, they suffer, they piss and moan, impervious to the devastation all around.
The epic classicism that begins to emerge in the paintings culminates in the two sculptures (both “Untitled,” 2008). This is Pylypchuk’s first foray into casting. His previous sculptures were almost urgently makeshift, as if their essence relied on their impermanence. Here, the characters are no longer subordinated to the materiality of their bodies; instead, they bear the crushing weight of immortality. In the smaller of the two pieces, a slight, cat-headed character with spindly outstretched arms and wooden legs stands at attention on a pedestal twice his height. The monumental larger sculpture features two life-sized figures with long, gangly limbs and elephant heads duking it out in the center of one of the gallery spaces. The sock legs and patchwork bodies of the model from which the sculpture was cast are still perceptible in the imprint of creased fabric, but the leaden mass of the metal forms—ears flopping, trunks and tusks ramming—drags the fight to a dead, lumbering stop. The image of time, to use Gilles Deleuze’s phrase, that is played out in Pylypchuk’s paper and wood, is subsumed in the space of an eternal monument, like the carbon imprint from an atomic blast or the cast of a body incinerated in a flash of volcanic debris.
Pylypchuk’s world materializes the slippage between childhood imagination and adult relations, the same indistinct space that allows fiction to flow into life. The problem is that life makes a distinction; we make use of fiction by sublimating it into metaphor, not by residing in it. As reflections of human beings, Pylypchuk’s characters assume the comic burden of man’s own follies—they take the fall. His profound skill is his capacity to assert them as something other than reflections, to recognize the essential equivalence between a matchstick and a body, or between an elephant brawl and the human condition. As one character says to another in a 2004 collage, “Sucks to be you.” Evidently, it’s all the same when the ashes cave in.