Poster Boy: Brooklynovationby Emily Nathan
3rd Ward Gallery, April 24, 2009
Advertised on NY Art Beat’s website as “the Spring Event that lets you cut and paste just like Poster Boy,” Brooklynnovation, at Bushwick’s artists’-space-cum-gallery, 3rd Ward, ultimately seems less about innovation and more about redundancy. The eponymous Poster Boy and his collective are notorious for their “re-mixing,” in early February, of an extensive series of advertisements commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, which plastered the walls of the Atlantic-Pacific subway station in Brooklyn. Claiming “official museum business” in order to gain access to the ads, the motley crew got to work; a series of snips and pastes later, Warhol’s Marilyn emerged a nose-job patient, and a half-sunken race-car, leaking black oil, had crashed into a pond of Monet’s water lilies. The museum took legal action and a succession of still unresolved incidents ensued, including the arrest of an innocent Poster Boy stand-in (the mistake was eventually acknowledged by officials). Meanwhile, the wanted artist, currently “at-large,” issued statements explaining that the debacle was a manifestation of his founding motivation, the desire to inspire a “decentralized” art movement. Ideally, he stated, everyone could and would be an anonymous, participating author of an ongoing aesthetic dialogue that would permeate all facets of our collective daily lives; anyone, he suggested, could be Poster Boy.
It’s a nice idea, but at 3rd Ward, his passing of the metaphorical pen (or razor, in this case) to his viewers yields disappointing results. Rumored to have been in attendance for the event (3rd Ward supposedly left windows in the back wide open in case his quick getaway was necessary), Poster Boy demonstrated once again that his work cannot, does not and will not exist in a vacuum. At Brooklynovation, it was, in fact, entirely dependent upon the presence—and more importantly, the participation—of event attendees, who were invited to manipulate at their leisure the tools with which Poster Boy equipped them. He had completed his part before anyone arrived, having transformed the gallery space into something like the aftermath of a kindergarten-class exercise in collage: a grid of massacred advertisement posters ranging in subject hung on one wall, a seemingly arbitrary selection of their identifiers, words and figures snipped out; on the adjacent wall was a second grid, this one made of strips of Velcro. The rest, it was implied, was up to us. And although the conversion of their role from passive to active, from “attendee” to “producer,” was a surprise, the young, Pabst-sipping men and women present were apparently thrilled to accept the task, happy to be allowed—nay, encouraged!—to touch the work, to make it their own. The velcroed details Poster Boy had cut out from the laminated posters became their constituent elements for a mix-and-match collage that was energetically arranged and re-arranged by (now a team of) strangers, on the spot.
At moments, the results read like some surrealist horror flick: a giant screw violently assaulted the reddened face of a model as she leaned forward, lips parted suggestively. Disembodied busts, chests and torsos floated around hands brandishing guns. The image was continually in flux, resembling something akin to those ad-hoc magnetic poems that exist for mere moments, before unintentional or intentional re-scrambling, on college students’ fridges. “Beware the hidden unlimited trick,” read one; “Boost THAT,” begged another, borrowing “Boost” from a health club advertisement and a “THAT” from a Friday the 13th poster. The reorganization of unconnected elements from Poster Boy’s haphazardly deconstructed originals occasionally, if accidentally, illuminated the societal constructions contained within those originals. Perhaps the “hidden unlimited trick” synthesized by gallery attendees was a (subconscious?) reference to the manipulation of advertising and media propaganda to which we are subjected daily.
This theme has motivated Poster Boy’s activity on a whole, and his body of work provides an illuminating look into the field of appropriation-art as it exists in today’s increasingly borrowed and sampled world of creative production. The dialogue provoked by his vandalism of MoMA’s blown-up reproductions demonstrates how this sort of controversial activity engages, at its most successful—at its most disruptive, I posit—philosophical and political issues. Furthermore, his continued choice of advertising as target-cum-medium poses a direct address to the increasingly elusive and esoteric issues of authorship and appropriation in today’s all-access-all-the-time world of blogging, media-share, YouTube and Flickr. But Poster Boy is a street artist, and his original intention was to “take control of [his] environment”; the power of his work has come precisely from its unanticipated, unmediated intervention into public space, its encouragement that we reconsider our daily existence in relation to and in conversation with the world we inhabit. It seems that when street art flees the street and is injected into the very institution it has set out to challenge, the results are, at least in this case, unconvincing.
His work first popped up on dirty city walls, and perhaps it belongs there. Can a doctored poster for a Glenn Close TV drama in the 3rd Ward Gallery give one as much pause as can a horrendously disfigured icon of Modern Art, witnessed unexpectedly en route to the N-train? And how does either one of these interruptions still manage to shock and surprise us? Surely we must acknowledge that this “new” art which borrows, alludes and cites, is in fact not new at all, but a 21st-century recycling of a project for which there is great artistic precedent. As Holland Cotter queries in his review of the Met Museum’s current Pictures Generation exhibition, is art today “still tilling fields all but farmed out in the past?” If for nothing else, Poster Boy’s work in general is worth a look for its provocation of this question; in the meantime, his Brooklynovation doesn’t add up to much more than a clever play-on-words.
Emily Nathan is a photographer based in California.