Entering the P.S. 1 exhibition ‘Jonathan Horowitz: And/Or,’ one is greeted by an official portrait of President George W. Bush. The framed headshot, with the naïve, toothy grin, salt and pepper hair, and chipmunk-like cheeks of his first term, is flipped upside down as if the former president were dangling from an inverted crucifix like an ancient Roman prisoner suffering the most insulting form of death-by-state. One might think that somewhere deep in our constitutional by-laws there exists rules for hanging official portraits, just as there are rules against the maltreatment of the United States flag. Leave your Republican Party membership cards at the door: Welcome to the Jonathan Horowitz Show, a carnival of parsimonious acts of appropriation where politics and mass-media spectacle collide with destabilized ideals, hidden hegemonic truths and the risible rise and fall of American ambition.
With so many smouldering fires left behind by George W. Bush’s administration, how much work about recent political grievances will bubble to the surface? Artists like Steve Powers and Jon Kessler, both of whom are represented by Deitch Projects, have over the years churned out politico-apocalyptic nightmares. Unlike Powers and Kessler, Horowitz’s formal restraint and simple means eschews histrionics in favor of plainspoken irony. It’s the kind of uncomfortable, contra-American art that European collectors love to buy. Yet for all of his wit, is it possible to read the following label and not feel deceived by the preposterousness of Horowitz’s art?
Tofu on Pedestal in Gallery
Tofu, water, glass dish, Formica pedestal
46 x 15 x 15 inches
MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Acquired with the generous support of the 3×8 Fonds, an initiative of 12 Frankfurt companies and the City of Frankfurt am Maim: Credit Suisse (Deutschland) AG, Delton AG, Deutsche Bank AG, Deutsche Börse AG, DGZ DekaBank, Fraport AG, Ernst Max von Grunelius-Stiftung, J.P. Morgan AG, Nestlé Deutschland AG, Degussa AG, Helaba Landesbank Hessen-Thüringen, Sparkassen-Kulturstiftung Hessen-Thüringen Inv. Nr. 2004/10.1-3
The listing of such major corporate entities in the security (and sanctimony?) of a work of art — a reductio ad absurdum of sculptural conceit where a quivering mass of ordinary tofu sits in milky water atop a pedestal begs the question: Without our belief in society, in politics, in popular culture — our belief that art is art — are we culpable citizens in a world of everyday horrors? Are we convenient consumers who wilfully ignore life’s by-products? Horowitz seems to give us options, but they are not necessarily the options that we want. A large image composed of 64 framed inkjet prints entitled American Gothic (2002) excerpts a detail of a Norman Rockwell-like scene of domestic tranquillity. The Thanksgiving turkey is brought out with its trimmings, but in this multi-channel horror, the words ‘American Gothic’ are superimposed in the choice font of 1980s slasher movies, blood oozing from each letter. In a single composition Horowitz rewrote the iconic image of the same name, which in its original form is a painting of the Protestant Ethics of hard work and stability.
In Horowitz’s estimation, we are meat-eating, war-mongering, fair weather fans as quick to isolate ourselves from political disaster as we are to embrace that uniquely American “feel good” vibe. Much of the work is unappealing to the eye, intentionally void of cheap thrills. Precisely because Horowitz is at times cautious and caustic, patient and pedantic this retrospective of his work makes unsavoury art all the more relevant for these less-than-savoury times. It’s somewhat appropriate that Horowitz has no formal education in art, but only a degree in philosophy: If, as Thomas Hobbes’ wrote in Leviathan, a “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes) makes the world go round, then what else could prepare one to face a world in turmoil, where each social ill has its equal force in political gain, than a quick jaunt through the annals of thought?
[Jonathan Horowitz: And/Or remains on view at PS1 Contemporary Art Center through September 14, 2009.]
From the top: Official Portrait of George W. Bush Available for Free from the White House Hung Upside Down
2001, Framed color print, 12 x 10 inchs, Collection: The Wonderful Fund, London, Photo courtesy Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Tofu on Pedestal in Gallery 2002, Tofu, water, glass dish, Formica pedestal,
46 x 15 x 15 inches, Collection MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main Acquired with the generous support of the 3×8 Fonds, an initiative of 12 Frankfurt companies and the City of Frankfurt am Main:
Credit Suisse (Deutschland) AG, Delton AG, Deutsche Bank AG, Deutsche Börse AG, DGZ DekaBank, Fraport AG, Ernst Max von Grunelius-Stiftung, J.P. Morgan AG, Nestlé Deutschland AG, Degussa AG, Helaba Landesbank Hessen-Thüringen, Sparkassen-Kulturstiftung Hessen-Thüringen Inv. Nr. 2004/10.1-3; American Gothic, 2002, 64 framed inkjet prints, 8 3/4 x 11 π inches each; 90 x 70 inches overall, Private collection, Photo courtesy Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York.