Peter’s Auction Pick of the Day: Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
Regarding the power of things…there’s a magic trick with which artists have been delighting us for millennia: The conjurer of canvas may invest so much of his own soul into depicting an inanimate object that the resulting painting or photo of mere lifeless metal, vegetable, meat, or clay can evoke in its beholder an overwhelming emotional response. And for as long as artists have been playing this anthropomorphic sleight of hand, various and sundry delicate lads have wept over an apple painted by Cézanne with far more operatic grandeur than these same sensitive types have ever cried over a real life tragedy.
Therefore, inspired by our neighbors on Van Nuys Blvd—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms—my picks for today have inspired me to meditate upon a certain type of inanimate object in art: the Object of Vice—Evil you can smoke, drink, and/or shoot. Thus, taking our cue from the ATF, shall we begin with the letter “A”?
What fond hopes do beer ads conjure…“Man, if I just had a Bud in my hand I’d be surrounded by sun, steak, and bikini models,” thinks every American Male. Bill Barminski’s Untitled (Hype) (Lot 228) cleverly and poignantly depicts how deeply Madison Avenue has instilled into us the promised good times of spirits and how fondly we have come to feel for the bottle itself. As “Hype” illustrates, Mad Men need not even show us the barely legal bimbettes frolicking with a middle-aged schlub in a swimming pool anymore. Like Pavlov’s dogs, all we—the consumers—need is a cheerful image of a lonely beer and we invoke the Hedonistic frat tableaus of our collective mind.
And oh, the hype that every bottle of beer in the world now carries—“this will make you a man, this will make you popular, or authentic…or cool.” To Barminski (has there ever been a better-named artist to paint a beer?), advertising has led our lizard brains to believe that beer is the only way to savor life, and that the dark art of imbibing slow death is, as the great ad man would say, “what men do.”
Barminski has linked man’s eternal quest to feel virile through drink and violence by writing the word “Gun” in large, unsettling block letters under the surface of the painting—which would make the segue you’re now reading such delightfully low hanging fruit if firearms were the next letter in the ATF acronym. But alas we’re stuck with the letter “T” instead…
In Larry Rivers’ White Camel (1980) (Lot 330), even the title is both ominous and strangely serene, like the greatest Humphrey Bogart desert melodrama never made. There is the obvious Warholian pop association with a recognizable brand, but where Warhol and his disciples both mock and revel in the vivid garishness of mass advertising, Rivers famously goes the other way with this painting: these are lovely, tasteful colors. The pyramid and palm trees are a muted tobacco gold, the pillar to the left is a tasteful 80s salmon, and the Camel logo itself is mostly rubbed away for fear of being too obvious, and what remains is a soothing, haunted blue. This is a cigarette ad you can hang over your couch, or in your child’s nursery; even the crumpled foil at the top of the cigarette box looks like pretty wrapping paper flowing from a gift bag.
And yet, as all the imagery peacefully wipes itself away, erasing its sins into the white sands of time, we the beholders are drawn into Rivers’ inherent sense of bright, impending death. The tranquil hues and art school-perfect renderings are but ghoulish contrasts to the specter of the cigarette makers’ then-current practice of advertising its lovable cartoon camel to small children, and to all the loved ones ripped from us by those elegant white tubes.
Larry Rivers’ White Camel is a superb example of one of the more accomplished art series of its era. While Warhol was obsessed with making variations on the exact same image, Rivers instead created a seemingly endless stream of strikingly different treatments of those nefarious Camel ads. The scope and quality of Rivers’ attack on the ultimate oral fixation is all-too-literally breathtaking.
Speaking of corny segues, and while we’re on the subject of taking one’s breath away…
Described by Norman Mailer as “one of the few exciting artists we have today,” Gottfried Helnwein is represented by his epic, The Red Gun (Lot 293), one of the most striking and resonant works of art LAMA has ever had the privilege to exhibit. The titular weapon may strike one as an item exhibited in evidence, a gigantic, corroded artifact, newly recovered from some demonic lake years after a terrible crime.
Or, as was likely the intent of the artist, one is forced to ponder the meaning of, and the tangled emotional connections to, the sight of the work’s literal subject: the US Army-issued WWII .45 caliber hand guns that had recently been unearthed after decades under German soil. The Red Gun prods us to imagine what other horrors still lie buried just below the surface and is strangely beautiful forensic evidence of noble sacrifice and ignoble violence.
Helnwein, currently enjoying a major retrospective at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, and the subject of no less than three major exhibitions in Mexico City just last year, now seems poised to join still higher altitudes of prominence. According to the legendary William S. Burroughs, “It is the function of the artist to evoke the experience of surprised recognition: to show the viewer what he knows but does not know that he knows. Helnwein is a master of surprised recognition.”
It is this shock, not of the new, but of the known, that gives The Red Gun such power—for this is a massive, imposing, and majestic work.
Barminski, Rivers, and Helnwein at their formidable darkest all whisper the same damning fear: our dreams have become our cancer.