Exhibition Write-Up: Andy Warhol at Gow Langsford Gallery

Andy Warhol
Gow Langsford Gallery Kitchener St
17 April – 11 May 2013

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Andy Warhol with Archie (1973), photo by Jack Mitchell

The work of Andy Warhol needs little introduction.  As America took a turn from the conventional conservatism that ruled the ‘50s into the swinging sixties, a new time of cultural liberty, frivolity, and mass-production and consumerism emerged. As a pioneering artist of the associated artistic movement of Pop Art, Andy Warhol’s now world-famous work explores the relationship between artistic expression, celebrity culture and advertisement. This exhibition covers major themes in his works – skulls, Chairman Mao, Marilyn, electric chairs, Joseph Beuys and the infamous soup cans.

Screenprinted images form an integral part of Warhol’s practice.  “Warhol’s decision to select images from popular culture and combine them with the printing processes of the commercial world was an essential element of his Pop statement.  With nearly scientific fervour, he dissected the very mechanics of image production and, through this unexpected commonplace vehicle, discovered a way to be original.” (Donna de Salvo, “Andy Warhol Prints”, Ronald Feldan Fine Arts, Inc., 1997, p. 16). Focusing on an item of popular culture, the subject of his screen prints enters the realm of “Pop Art” through his trademark colouring and screen print production techniques.  The resulting images became almost iconic, a metaphor for America – its capitalism, its abundance, its industry, and, most importantly, its simultaneous and contradictory desire for innovation and uniformity. (adapted from “Andy Warhol Prints: a catalogue raisonne 1962-1987”, Frayda Feldman and Jorg Schellmann, 3rd edition, 1997).

Electric Chair, 1971

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Electric Chair (1971), Warhol,
#74 (edition 134) and #83 (edition 89) from a portfolio of ten screen prints on paper

The Electric Chair series carries more sinister implications about contemporary society, with particular reference to the mental healthcare of America at the time. The reality of the unsettling subject matter, an electric chair used in hospitals, contrasts with the fluorescent, ‘electric’, colour palette Warhol employs, creating an overwhelmingly eerie sense of contradiction and conceptual juxtaposition. Despite the sometimes controversial nature of his screen prints, the Electric Chair series not only implies the absurdness of life, but simultaneously alerts us to the fact that sometimes material value was predominant over other morale and virtues in the consumerist society of 1960s America.

Marilyn, 1967

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Marilyn (1967), Warhol
#23 (edition 206 of 250) from a portfolio of 10 screen prints on paper

Mao, 1972

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Mao (1972), Warhol
#99 (edition 11/250) from a portfolio of 10 screen prints on Beckett High White paper

Marilyn Monroe and Chairman Mao – a seemingly unlikely coupling of two highly distinguishable public figures who are, nonetheless, bound here by their bold colours and screen printed method of creation. Even at a glance these portraits are arresting with their vibrancy and eccentric combination of colours, demanding further observation from their audiences.

Gazing out through hooded eyelids is Marilyn; her trademark curls and beauty spot, her full mouth, forever seductive. As part of a series of ten screen prints, this portrait holds a sense of experimentation and spontaneity. Despite the weight of her pouty stare, there is something light and frivolous in the work that is appropriate to Monroe’s status as an actress, model, singer and major sex symbol in 50s and 60s America.

In contrast is Mao, a Chinese communist revolutionary who is credited as the founding Father of the People’s Republic of China. Supporters praise him for modernising China and building it into a world power, but he has also been labelled a dictator whose administration oversaw systematic human rights abuses. Despite these controversies, Warhol takes his image, along with that of Monroe, and elevates both figures into something iconic, maybe even divine. In this screen print, Mao’s gaze remains obscured beneath shades of dark blue and black, but Warhol manages to catch the whites of Mao’s eyes, conveying the figure’s unsettling sense of pride and superiority. These portraits of Chairman Mao and Marilyn Monroe are powerful and memorable images, epitomising Warhol’s dedication to the technique of screen printing that so clearly defined him stylistically.

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