City Paper is not for tourists
David Opdyke and Lane Twitchell”
Superabundance is not a uniquely American aesthetic gambit. But the land that turned “supersize” into a verb—and an imperative at that—has such a firm grip on muchness that virtually any artist who endeavors to capture the great, majestic sweep of American culture will be required to deal with two types of plenty: lots of wide-open space and lots of mass-produced stuff.
In the work of the two New York– based artists showcased in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “American Paradigms,” the vastness of the country is played against the overwhelming proliferation of things we’ve invented to fill it up. David Opdyke and Lane Twitchell address Americans’ perennial love/hate relationship with the land, driven by questions as to how much of it we can take and how much of us it can take.
It’s a tendentious but effective pairing, with each artist being asked to play the role he more or less naturally falls into. Opdyke’s intricate, obsessively crafted miniatures, satires of American opinion and consumption, are displayed in relative gloom, each piece picked out by cool spotlights. Bathed in an oppositional warmth, Twitchell’s equally intricate and obsessively crafted cut-paper constructions, symbolic tapestries of revelation, reinvention, and conquest, bloom like desert flowers.
Opdyke turns skills he’s gained as an architectural-model maker toward a critique of undifferentiated sprawl in its myriad guises: physical, institutional, intellectual. His chief strategy is to take something universally desirable or useful and then replicate it until it metastasizes into something horrific. Oil Empire (2003), for example, is a table-top map of the continental United States constructed entirely of hand-crafted plastic pipe. Bulky cylindrical tanks feed a web of valves and bends and T-connectors, ultimately linking up with tidy regiments of gas pumps. The tangled assembly shoots skyward along the Gulf coast, turning greater Houston into an incongruous metropolis that sprouts from the network of pipes like Chicago from the plains of the Midwest. Charting in concrete terms our chemical dependency, the scale of which remains an abstraction most of the time, Opdyke renders a nation built on cheap, available petroleum as a hyperbolic absurdity—albeit one that can’t be all that far from the truth.
Other pieces combine American enthusiasms in fanciful ways that hint darkly at the linkages of appetites and fears that constitute our “national interests.” Freedom Ride (2003) is a vertiginous Ferris-wheel-cum-roller-coaster with a missile theme, replicas of famous payload-delivery vehicles sprouting from its superstructure. USS Mall (2003) plants a nondescript shopping complex, complete with plenty of free parking, atop an aircraft carrier whose hull appears to have been hewn from the American soil. As it sails for foreign ports, the muscle it flexes isn’t military but mercantile.
A couple of works that tackle the political process directly argue that we live in a time in which party distinctions are cosmetic at best. In the twin video projection Debatable (2004), atop a patriotic panorama of monuments and edifices, two invisible candidates go head to head with paragraphs of meaningless computer-generated argument: “Look, you’ve just reversed your position. Here’s what I’ve said. I have a bold new plan for values. I think that speaks for itself. I can get it done. The other side can’t,” reads one block of speech. Shot onto the opposite wall of the gallery is the reply: “I disagree completely. With all due respect, I believe it’s all about issues. That’s what a leader does. Now, we disagree on this, but I think the facts are on my side.” And so it goes, one hopeful talking of “issues,” the other of “values,” and who’s more persuasive is anyone’s guess.
Taste Test 2000 (2001) views the landscape of the electorate, divvying up the lower 48 into swaths of red and blue. Then two more layers of meaning—or unmeaning—are grafted on. Each territory is assigned to one of the combatants in the cola wars, the red going to Coke, the blue to Pepsi. And each manufacturer’s logo is spelled out in the tiny, colored houses of a sprawling coast-to-coast suburb: red, white, and deep rose for Coca-Cola, shades of blue and plum for Pepsi. The tiny cars parked in the street are color-coordinated with the corresponding houses. Picket fences mark turf boundaries.
And this is where Opdyke makes me nervous. His work gets over on effect, on his estimable chops and due diligence as an image-maker. And it works best when the political message is somewhat associative or nebulous. When his rhetoric is most pointed, it also seems least supportable. Taste Test 2000 is Opdyke’s cleverest, most indelible vista, but it dissolves in close-up. Its lesson is apparently that there is no distinction to be made between Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. That was certainly the argument of the Naderites before the last presidential contest. But then the election blew up in our faces and had to be decided all over again—by an unelected electorate of nine berobed oldsters. Three years and a couple of wars later, nobody believes it doesn’t matter which side you choose.
Using the cola wars as a kind of shorthand for monumental inconsequence also doesn’t wash. More than 15 years ago, the monkish punk hand-wringers of X despaired in verse over the number of varieties of Coke that were then available. And just last week, the New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs column took up the banner again, attempting to make sport of soft-drink narrowcasting by cooking up a variety of supposedly ridiculous niche-market brands, most of which I could see being sold in earnest.
Nobody bitches about there being too many types of Bordeaux or goat cheese or ambitious first novels available to the American consumer, but the threat of similarly profuse pop offerings brings out the culture cops—and not always those you’d expect, either. That’s because whether you’re “the last American band to get played on the radio” or a loss-leader stronghold of literary journalism or even a right-thinking young artist attempting to make a name for yourself in NYC, you’re struggling for bandwidth, afraid that your signal will be all but drowned out by the din of the overculture. In each case, it’s dispiriting to think that negotiating the pop marketplace might actually involve the making of significant distinctions; it’s much more comforting to imagine that ostensibly low-culture consumption requires no decisive judgment whatsoever. After all, being ignored doesn’t hurt if you take it for granted that the people ignoring you are brainless.
Opdyke succeeds as Cassandra only insofar as you’re willing to believe that America is one place from sea to shining sea: one mall, one suburb, one vast repository of the unwashed, all eating the same food, driving the same cars, not-thinking the same nonthoughts. Opdyke’s is a viewpoint not without its condescending comforts, but it ultimately offers a smaller picture of America than the one we actually know.
Twitchell does right by a richer conception of the nation, in all its glory and its horror. And he does it by staking his claim as one more crackpot hell-bent on refashioning the American expanse according to his own desires. Rather than conceive of the country as a single thing carried to extremes, he sees it as a resounding cacophony of everything all the time, improbably unfolding as though according to pattern.
Creasing and cutting and uncreasing and recutting huge sheets of paper into multicolored doilies with complex symmetries, Twitchell lays out the elements of grand American narratives into dense figurative webs. Mythic America or How the West Was One (1998) combines the completion of the transcontinental railroad with a personal pilgrimage to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty the summer it re-emerged from the Great Salt Lake. Train tracks outline a star, at the center of which is a wheel of Golden Spikes; in each of the star’s eight points is an outline of Smithson’s famed earthwork.
Even without the example of this mandalalike picture or the directly mandala-based This Is the Place or In Our Lovely Deseret (1999)—the artist professes a kinship with Tibetans, “freaky mountain people” making their freaky mountain art—it’s plain that Twitchell’s is essentially a secularized religious vision. Utah-born and -raised, he calls himself a Jack Mormon—“nonpracticing but sympathetic.” His two foremost culture heroes are Joseph Smith and Donald Judd, famously cantankerous men who moved to the desert so they might have the space in which to realize their dreams unmolested.
Twitchell is so devoted an admirer of Judd, in fact, that when he saw that his opening fell on the 10th anniversary of the sculptor’s death, he arranged for a memorial service to be held on the sidewalk outside the Corcoran, complete with a toast of single-malt scotch and a bagpiper who played a Mormon hymn for which Twitchell had fashioned new words. It was an utterly nutty, utterly heartfelt gesture, appropriate and outrageous at the same time, and though I couldn’t really say what I signed on for, I felt as though I was a convert to something.
Twitchell likens Godbold (The West Texas Rapture) (2001), named after the family whose visibly branded feed mill looms over Marfa, Texas, where Judd’s Chinati Foundation is based, to a “drive-through Ed Ruscha.” A tunnel of almost illegibly stylized Day-Glo letters, composed in a variety of patterns derived from decorative architectural screens, spells out “Godbold” as it recedes along a desert highway. Another highway homage, Sunflower (Interchange #1) (2002) is an art- nouveau-style supernova of towering lights, glowing signs, and swooping overpasses. It’s here that Twitchell comes closest to Opdyke’s scolding of uniform excess, but Twitchell can’t help being entranced by the choking maze of thoroughfare that constitutes a dysfunctional monument to American fantasies of universal access.
Taking its name from the funky apocalypse of the Doors’ “Peace Frog,” Bloody Red Sun of Fantastic L.A. (2003) is both critique and celebration, with one corner pinned down by a grinning, mouse-eared Dubya standing in the shadow of a fairy-tale castle, taking on the world with guns a-blazin’. There’s a tacit condemnation of a drowsy populace, as scattered sleepers fall prey to the poppies of Oz, but the zooming frenzy that weaves all these icons back into the fabric of daily life offers another explanation: Maybe we sleep because we’re exhausted.
Twitchell wallows in American muchness, fashioning from the myriad scattered shards of his heritage as both Mormon and artist a delirious heterodoxy of myth and madness that sends us to hell and hopes we enjoy the trip. Starting with the example of two high-dudgeon poets of exclusion, he fashions a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, all-embracing America that has more than enough room for the next tetched, driven visionary who comes along. CP