The desire to become a machine belongs to a deceptively proud artistic tradition. Often helpful, machines are also agents of alienation; they usurp our jobs, manipulate our desires, direct our social habits. The critical enigma of Andy Warhol arises out of his machinic becoming, amidst popular culture’s technologization. Swish god of American pop art, the artist seemed to negate his own creativity, by adopting the mechanized language of commercial design. A testament to the pertinence of his gesture exists to this day, in ongoing arguments about the work’s influence. Was it a poison pill that (carrying the virus of Marcel Duchamp) delivered deep cynicism into art, or a clandestine resistance to neoliberal notions of creativity and authenticity?
This question lingers ominously behind Rita McBride‘s solo show ‘Leitplanken’ (Guard Rails) at Konrad Fisher Galerie Berlin. While attending the storied California Institute of the Arts in the 1980s, McBride was a pupil of John Baldessari, the conceptualist whose work took up the graphic syntax of pop art, but whose metier is less the Manhattan social scene than the rarefied Academy. To think through the relationship between McBride’s new work, Baldessari, and Warhol, is to encounter knots, made from convergences of history and artistic ethos. McBride’s show consists of a pentagon structure, comprised of bland white walls, around which wrap five bright blue highway guard rails. These industrially produced components are installed just above average head height, affording perfect vantage on their lavish details: rich cerulean blue fading into a faint strip of lavender, exquisitely milled bolts holding the steel together. The piece could be an industrial-scale tribute to Warhol’s hypercolor renditions of small-scale consumer items. But more pertinent is a link made between these two artists, through the subject of automobiles—a force at once ultra convenient and ultra destructive, ushered insidiously into our lives by the power of Fordist automation.
In the early 1960s, Warhol produced his ‘Death and Disaster’ series, an emotionally piercing exception to his more widely known work. Therein, ghastly press images of car crashes, with human bodies strewn and flopped like rag dolls, were silkscreened over bright surfaces reminiscent of industrially-produced commodities. The car is thus an emblem that, signifying capitalism’s braiding of misery and false freedom, joins these artists across history. In turn, Baldessari appears in this convoluted fold of pop art conceptualism and car culture by way of a recent commission for BMW. Mostly white, the Baldessari designed rally car is blotched with the artist’s signature, graphic colours; its doors bear the word FAST, echoing his cheeky renditions of text-based conceptualism; in my favorite press image, the bearded artist leans fiendishly over the car, wielding a pot of red paint like some aged Christmas elf, high on off-gassing plastic.
These referents are crucial to reckoning with McBride’s new work because they help to decode the art-historical languages that inform its deliberately opaque meaning: “Oh great… some painted highway guard rails in an art gallery… what am I supposed to make of this?” Fetish value and intellectual cunning converge in this work: nothing new there, of course. But the problem is that it’s almost impossible to figure out which is serving which. On the one hand, it’s possible to understand McBride’s show as an attempt to continue and complicate established artistic languages: not only the aforementioned pop-conceptualists, but more meditative proponents of sculpture as a process of serial object production and display, from Donald Judd to Ann Truitt. Though a whiff of conservatism emits from McBride’s continuation of these historic modes, the maintenance of any kind of historical continuity seems a worthwhile effort in a time when digital media breaks memory into individuated fragments. And impressively, far from seeming like nostalgic reclamations of these histories, McBride’s ‘Leitplanken’ braid them into a construction that feels wholly present, allowing the guard rails to slip back and forth between their familiar function, and a more enigmatic space, wherein the mind can drift over their broader cultural meaning.
They function effectively as a certain kind of art, backed by a very specific and very powerful artistic lineage. So the show is appreciable, in the same way that any skilfully-crafted recitation is appreciable. Though Baldessari’s BMW is a little bit gross in its bald-faced allegiance with corporate interest, it at least has the merit of being bald-faced. There’s something unsettling, however, about the way McBride coats readymade objects, designed to read as self-conscious reflections on factory production and its poison capitalist milieu, in the exact type of fetishistic surface that drives the desire that fuels the system in the first place. Conventional understandings of Warhol’s career have him producing a gust of radical work, before descending into a much flatter form of cynicism, after 1968. Those ‘Death and Disaster’ works, for example, actually hurt to look at: so too, albeit in a more subtle way, did McBride’s haunting ‘Parking Garage’ sculptures of years past. In contrast, her guard rails steer regrettably clear of such complicated impressions.