October 29 – December 19, 2021
Assemblage appears and reappears as an endgame language. The freefall of painting, at least as it was defined by the New York School, was triggered by the literalness of objects taking hold. Michael Fried would say that a shaped canvas would merely “prolong the agony” of painting’s unavoidable exhaustion; and the work of Johns and Rauschenberg that gestured towards “paintings playing at being sculpture” was interpreted as the final moves of the medium.
You feel the parallels between the aesthetic endgame of painting and American decline itself when you walk into Mike Shultis’s Animal Crackers at ASHES/ASHES. Applicable to Animal Crackers are artists like Mike Kelley and Justin Lieberman, who picked up where Rauschenberg’s “Combines” or Johns’s Fool’s House (1962) left off. In chess, “zugzwang” is a term used when your only remaining moves are self-destructive, taking you closer to losing the game. For Kelley and Lieberman, this zugzwang provided a strategy of incandescent accelerationism, one that they felt offered a more practical counter-strategy to cultural and personal trauma than the academic critique of their peers.
Facing the door and on the main wall of the gallery is Shultis’s Hunting Legends (2021), a life-sized, high relief assemblage that hangs in an artist-made frame on a wall of painted-red saltine crackers. Utilizing a printout of the failson brothers Trump in all of their lurid detail, the piece takes its title from the private big-game hunting company of Donald Jr. and Eric, who are proudly showing off a dead deer they killed during one of their luxury hunting expeditions. Shultis has enlarged their features before skewing and reassembling their faces into a language that mimics virtual face filters or something more gruesome, like the plastic-mask-like inflexibility of rigor mortis. A swarm of sewn-together stuffed animals, big-game trophies, explodes from the right of the composition, the most on-the-nose homage to Kelley in the show. A spray of children’s toys dangles from the mass and gestures towards the Trump brothers’ stunted development.
Shultis’s interest in accumulation, base materialism, and bricolage feels appropriate when there are literal plastic islands of consumer debris floating in the ocean. With artists cautious of taking up space with new forms, assemblage provides an ethical side-step that also provides a useful language for narrative, polemic, and directly political projects where the exigencies of painting wouldn’t allow. In the case of Shultis, what makes the material admixture avoid becoming overly sardonic, illustrative, or angsty critique is how the materials have a relationship to memory ware. The dense clusters of material in each piece time stamp a language of America at the time of its making and encapsulate moments in a time marked by cultural forgetting.
Every piece except Hunting Legends utilizes a Plexiglas cover over the surging stockpile reliefs making each one an enclosed system—a plexiglass tomb. Shultis paints on the plexi in a style that evokes stained glass, masking and revealing the array of objects underneath to give the work further depth that allows additional interpretations as edifice and reliquary. In Peacockin’ (2021), Balenciaga clothing is revealed through windows of the coloring-book-styled peacock that is graphically articulated in broad lines filled with opaque color on the plexiglass. Beyond anti-bourgeois critique or an acknowledgment of our complicit petit-bourgeois tastes as artists, Balenciaga’s ironizing and viral marketing tactics understand that branding is more influential than the product—a consumer reality that was understood by Cambridge Analytica as it gamed the American political system through targeted advertisements based on fashion preferences during the run up to the 2016 election. Shultis’s range widens in Thin Ice (2021), which achieves something more dimensional and transcendent. The shape of the polar bear’s head silhouettes an Americana manqué wasteland of cowboys, flags, and frontier aesthetics. The bathetic tears of the worried polar bear frame the berserk gleam of an empire’s edge.
The assemblages in Animal Crackers use this endgame language at a moment we are in need of its ambitious reinvention. The literalness of assemblage metaphorically mirrors the earnestness of American popular culture, and counters its politics of racial paranoia and white supremacy that was literalized by the Trump presidency. Assemblage, here, meets the world after the January 6 insurrection, one devoid of subtlety or nuance. The deadpan use of camp material that Shultis is using to preserve and entomb American faiblesse is literal in the same way that the white nationalist project of the Right, along with their anti-democratic ambitions, have revealed themselves to be.
Shultis seems to avoid the black pill of Kelley and Lieberman by finding an external subject to project this manic binge of material onto. The failsons of Trump, Florida Man, the worried polar bear, the cleaned-out, exhumed body of America is here conceived through an aesthetic that is monumental, manically generous, but crucially dispassionate. Ricocheting back and forth between what is vertiginously confident but ultimately hopeless, Shultis’s aesthetic is detached in the right ways, excessive when it needs to be, while never asking to be indulged. Never risible, we go to laugh but realize what is felt deep down, is anger.