Illustration by Sam McEwen.
Offences committed under the influence of adolescence might include P-plate pileups, pregnancy scares, Lynx-scented dance-moves, or all three at once. Mine was buying a book on Andy Warhol. Three, actually. Hardly consequential, but I remember it with the disdain and bemusement others might reserve for a bibulous hospitalisation or nearly-criminal record. But why? — is the ‘Pop art’ for which Andy served as sovereign not so “popular, witty, sexy, and glamorous” as artist Richard Hamilton claimed? I held a hope or two, descending the escalator to the floor it consumes entirely, but was neither aroused nor amused by the onslaught of primary colours it sustains over 1600 square metres.
Before I discourage the Pop postulant totally, I must enforce that Pop to Popism is very much worth seeing — for reasons extraneous to the works themselves. If you are not vain, and would like to enjoy yourself earnestly, I cannot recommend you go. Only those with a taste for charting the devolvement of cultural values and forms into their current state, which is also a taste for masochism, should make their way. Alas, there is carrion aplenty to feed this sorry breed of culture-vulture, but circling these ruins affords a prospect of unique deliciousness. If you found yourself wondering in what decrepit universe “popular” is a superlative, the answer is our own. This exhibition illustrates the story of how that happened, for Pop art sees the long paroxysm of the avant-garde anæsthetised by capitalism-as-cultural-ambience. Its mute gesture is to ‘recontextualise’ non-art and low-art to re-assign or nullify cultural value. The averageness of Warhol’s intelligence couldn’t have permitted anything more pretentious than art of and for today in the barest sense; his ambition to “be a machine” made him ventriloquist of his vapid civilisation. To generalise, any contemporary art that isn’t dismissed as nostalgic is merely a restatement of Warholian Pop. But enough of Andy; there are other gods in the pantheon. Australian gods.
Indeed, in the first room, beside the Brit Richard Hamilton’s 1956 foundational collage, you can let off a patriotic “oi, oi, oi!” at the sight of some passable stoner art by sixties Sydney collective the Annandale Imitation Realists. They call it “neo-primitive funk and junk.” But who am I to judge? True Pop art – the shiny sort uncultivated by Oz artists with counter-cultural ambitions – is the end of judgement. Warhol said “Everything is art.” This post-modernism opens stupefying vistas of equivalence where even antitheses are possible: Pop is subversive, Pop is complicit. Significance is nannied by essays of cant. I interrupted two Swedish girls feigning deep scrutiny of a Lichtenstein to ask them if and why they liked the art. They’d like it much more if it were “explained a lot more by a guide.” Poor things.
In the absence of such a doctrinaire chaperone, the glib pamphlet, citation cards, and website explain everything away. Case in point: the exhibition’s most artistically regrettable renderings of private-parts were Vivienne Binns’ 1967 ‘Vag Dens’ and its pendant ‘Phallic Monument.’ Yet Popism’s swish online portal attributes the critics’ outrage to their inability to “cope with the idea that a young woman created such blatantly sexual works. Perhaps they felt threatened by an image that showed there was more to women than…perfect housewives.” Popism certainly promotes the idea of Pop art as ‘sexy’ but the result is an opaque, asexual weirdness. Nursed on a sour cocktail of British and American blood, it assumes an attitude you’d expect from the furtive Googling of a fifty-year-old. Its primary manifestation is guilty smuttiness. Eros makes an entrance only to don pleather thigh-boots, as in Allen Jone’s 1972 mounted sculpture ‘Secretary’, or to strew garlands of genital caricatures. Sexual difference is trumped up to such exhausting high-voltage that we get either Tarzans or bimbos to-be-sold-separately. Desire is usually a failsafe theme, but you can barely taste it here. But this is only Pop’s honest faith, for we see before us our era of Mr Grey and his fifty shades of the same dull, commercial colour. Time – that other thematic heavyweight – is the reality Pop latches onto. Time passing, in the most prosaic sense. Its mood, and the whole mood of Pop culture, seems capable of seeing life only as a dumb cavalcade of discrete decades, a factory-model of history and experience — the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, flit by with their inventions and events like item-numbers on the assembly line. This ‘paved the way’ for that, here ‘broke ground’ for there, ad infinitum. The mood of mechanical action is so pervasive that no one giggles even when Pop art is praised with such neutralities as “defining” and “recognisable.”
Exiting through the ample gift-shop, you might wonder if the exhibition is indeed over. That the curator did not exploit this hilarious ambiguity is beyond me —why not exhibit consumer art amidst consumer goods? Connoisseurship of this sort of thing relieves boredom; earlier in the exhibition I laughed when I saw, amid these icons of infinite reproduction lauded for their very ubiquity, a warning not to photograph anything lest copyright be violated. Rightly so, for there are fortunes to defend. At auction a Warhol can rake in a profit at least double that of an Old Master. The salary of newish gallery director Michael Brand suggests this phenomenon extends to art-people as well as art-works. The ironies issuing from venue might be greater here than the commercial galleries in which this art first appeared. Pop has graduated not only as a market leader, but as a cash-cow grazing the hallowed halls of museum-galleries, effectively keeping them solvent with its surface appeal. No finer parable for ‘progress’ could be desired.
Pop to Popism allows us to see Pop art and Pop culture for precisely what it is: the harrowing flatness of a plebeian rococo. One you can instagram from the café set up smack-bang-Sydney-style in the middle of it all. Resurfacing to the atrium, we are farewelled by a print of Warhol’s face and the words “Pop art is for everyone.” Happily except yourselves from that category, dear reader, or languish forever in the freezer aisle.