Death of American Sprituality (1987)
David Wojnarowicz (1954-92)
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The multi-media American artist David Wojnarowicz is best-known for his mixed-media collage art, much of which was intensely critical of American society. His other contemporary art - which included photography and writing, as well as painting and performance art - also covered a range of issues, such as AIDS, the power of the media, corruption, sex, and the struggle between machines and nature. Part of the New York avant-garde, he was - along with Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) and Keith Haring (1958-90) - at the centre of New York's semi-underground whirlpool of postmodernist art, where anything and everything was tried. One of many artists to achieve recognition in the East Village art scene of the early 80s, Wojnarowicz first attracted attention for his graffiti art - stencilled mural paintings of burning houses and falling figures. In 1985, he was included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial, the so-called "Graffiti Show". The AIDS-related death of his friend Peter Hujar, the photographer, in 1987, followed by his own AIDS diagnosis in 1988, led Wojnarowicz to become an activist in the campaign to publicize the disease and its social and psychological impact. He died from the disease in his home in Manhattan on July 22, 1992, at the age of thirty-eight. Since then, his work has appeared in some of the best galleries of contemporary art in America, and he is now considered to have been one of New York's most talented of postmodernist artists of the 1980s.
Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey. After being abused as a child he ran away from home, and during his teens became a child prostitute in Times Square, New York. After attending a series of schools, he eventually trained at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. After spending a period of time away from the city, during the mid/late 70s, he returned in 1979 and quickly became one of the most prominent street artists in the East Village, making stencilled pictures of burning houses. He also made super-8 films, played in a band and showed his painting in well-known East Village galleries, such as Civilian Warfare, Public Illumination Picture Gallery, Ground Zero Gallery NY, Gracie Mansion and Hal Bromm. he also collaborated with other top contemporary artists including the photographers Peter Hujar (b.1934-87) and Nan Goldin (b.1953) and as well as sculptors like Kiki Smith, the performance artist Karen Finley, and underground film-maker Richard Kern (b.1954).
The art of David Wojnarowicz leaves no ambiguity about the identity of the artist. On the contrary, Wojnarowicz uses his acknowledged deviancy (child prostitution), to lay bare society's ethical flaws and dissimulation. The aesthetic he created out of this painfully uncompromising self-scrutiny and exposure nevertheless embodies the remarkable beauty of a complex and incisive mind. At the same time he was one of the most brilliant exponents of collage art of the late twentieth century and used his talent to create a series of layered interactions between nature, his personal identity, and contemporary cultural values. As he put it:
In "Water" (1987, Private Collection, New York), a painting that belongs to a cycle of compositions on earth, air, fire, and water, a dark ocean liner surges into a vast night sea. A cut-away on the hull - as though we can see with Superman's X-ray vision - reveals a strange tangle of viscera in muted colour, all drawn with a comic-book simplicity of style. Above and overlapping the ship is a frog, rendered with meticulous naturalism in a palette rich as only nature itself could conceive it. A window opens through the back of the frog and looks down on a black-and-white photograph of a trashed automobile hulk, abandoned on the side of the road. Here the striking contrasts between the lush, human rendering of nature (the frog) and the starkly mechanical realism of the colourless photograph (recording the detritus of urban decay) set up one of the many charged levels of discourse in the picture.
Wojnarowicz filled the centre of Water with an organically contoured grid of small black-and-white pictures in an illustrational style. The subject matter of these pictures relates to the various images around the periphery of the composition. Some frames contain energetically swirling spirals, like eddies of water: there are river and oceanscapes with a swimmer, fish, views of the steamship in daylight, superimpositions with other images; the frog recurs, once in a surreal scale looking over a railing, and in another section it is prefigured as eggs and tadpole; and other allusions to ontogenesis or to the biology of internal organs also crop up around the grid. Finally there are three overtly erotic scenes, depicting sexual encounters between two women, three men, and in the third the nude male torso and an implied onlooker.
In the upper right corner of Water the artist superimposed a colourful, circular vignette over this monochromatic checkerboard, showing a hand swathed in bandages, reaching out through prison bars. A flower seems to drop from the hand into a snowy sky with tiny white figures scattered below like snowflakes. Finally the inky blue water and night sky that form a perimeter around the painting are traversed by a school of sperm cells, animating the composition with a delicate pattern in their free profusion.
Part of the impact of this painting, and of Wojnarowicz's work generally, involves a radical insight into the complicated layering of impressions from nature, from subjective frameworks of interpretation, and from the languages of culture that make up what we understand today as "reality." Wojnarowicz seems to have experienced all these levels with remarkable distinctness.
Wojnarowicz's career resembles that of Basquiat and Haring to the extent that he first attracted notice on the downtown scene through the clubs, where he began playing with a post-punk noise band called "3 Teens Kill 4 - No Motive" in 1979. But the core of his early work was a guerrilla-style political activism, stencilling mural images that he collected from the tabloid media, politics, dinosaurs, guns, muggers, soldiers, young male torsos, addicts shooting up. His aim was to call attention to the ethical state of emergency he found in American culture of the eighties.
Wojnarowicz frequently made powerful use of the media of performance and installation art, sometimes in galleries and at other times in derelict buildings or even illegal sites like the abandoned piers at the west end of Canal Street in New York. As an act of conscience, he never permitted his art-world success (which verged on the considerable by the mid-1980s) to overshadow his political and social statement. Sometimes he directly attacked the complacent ease of the art establishment - in 1980 he and his friend Julie Hare dumped a load of bloody cow bones from the meatpacking district into the stairwell of the chic SoHo gallery owned by Leo Castelli, when it was full of visitors, and in 1982 they made an unsolicited contribution to the "Beasts" exhibition at P.S.I, releasing live cockroaches with tiny glued-on bunny ears and tails ("cockabunnies") into the galleries at the opening."
Moved to a new kind of self-awareness by the writings of the French novelist Jean Genet and later by William Burroughs, Wojnarowicz developed a confrontational style of working that pushed his art out of the comfort zone. His work concerns the real immediacy of bodily experience and identity in a culture filled with unacknowledged violence, which society masks in a barrage of consumer fiction and contradiction.
"You can turn and see some bum or some image of decay," Wojnarowicz pointed out, "and then turn again and see some restaurant where it costs $40 for a meal. So you're constantly superimposing images upon images and sandwiching them. TV, magazines, information, memory, grocery store signs - and there's all this suggestion of consumption ... of images."
"The Death of American Spirituality" is a summarizing painting for Wojnarowicz, bluntly stating his grandest theme. He divided the composition into four panels, joined by the continuity of the bull across three of them, the mountains across another two, the sky across two others. Yet while the sky continues over the top and the red bolts of electricity join all four frames, the grey rocks in the upper right bluntly stop at the edges and the right border of the mountain is abruptly cut by the midline of the composition when other elements are not. This jarringly reinforces the multi-level reality of experience for Wojnarowicz, as in his painting Water.
The terrifying images of the Hopi snake charmer and the kachina with its radiating streaks of energy are the avatars of the ancient culture of the Americas and perhaps the purifying force of nature itself. They seem to emerge from flames of destruction, encircling the bearings collaged from dollar bills (top centre) and the gears painted on a political map of the American continents, even lassoing the arm of the cowboy, who derives from Wojnarowicz's earlier graffiti stencil of Ronald Reagan as a nuclear "buckaroo." Wojnarowicz once pointed out that children are the only people in society today who think about good and evil. He despaired of this "diseased society", and yet he seems to have had a glimmer of hope that the directness of his confrontation with its moral failure might contribute to its salvation.
Unfortunately, Wojnarowicz's huge artistic talent for painting and collage has been overshadowed by his controversial attacks on American society. After all - to take another example - just because someone has a talent for mental arithmetic, it doesn't mean that they are gifted with above average social insight. Perhaps the art critic Clement Greenberg was correct when he advised in an article entitled "Abstract Art", published in The Nation, in April 1944: "Let painting confine itself to the disposition pure and simple of colour and line, and not intrigue us by associations with things we can experience more authentically elsewhere."
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