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The Last Judgement (Alex Gross, 2007, oil on canvas)

I failed to write a post for Martin Luther King Junior Day because I was out enjoying the holiday….just off gallivanting around the 19⁰ city (I guess that translates to -7 degrees in Celsius, in case my European readers mistakenly think I moved to Rangoon). To make up for the omission, here is a historically charged contemporary artwork by Alex Gross. Gross is a Los Angeles based artist who is part of the pop-surrealism movement which is based out there (aka “Low Brow” art). This painting is titled “The Last Judgement” and it portrays an anachronistic union between the races occurring in 1930s New York…among other things.

In the painting, Frederick Douglass, the great human rights leader and voice of abolition, weds a Chinese bride…or perhaps he is giving her away (the ceremonial import of his great sword and strawberry ice cream are unclear—although they suggest he has finally obtained power and leisure). The bride has left Chinese tradition behind enough to wear white, the bride’s color of purity in the west but the color of mourning in China. There is an anxious cast to her features which suggest that she may be with Douglass as a symbolic rebuke to the racist and xenophobic immigration acts which bedeviled the United States in the late nineteenth century (reactionary laws which do not show the American democracy or melting pot at its strongest).

Around the two figures ancient WASP ghosts rise from the ground, but they are joyously photographing the moment and releasing butterflies. A coral snake curls at the couple’s feet, for the way forward is always filled with perils. In the background a blimp crashes into the Chrysler building…for the conturbations of the greater world continue, irrespective of the state of relations among our citizenry. I have no idea what the goat means: is she an outcast figure of disunity? A happy pet? An ancient agricultural figure showing up along with the resurrected dead? Who knows?

I am a big fan of pop-surrealism (aka “Low Brow”) art, though I hate both of its names. I like the ambiguous symbolic literary meld of figures from history and natural history. Such paintings must be interpreted, and there is often plenty of room for ambiguity which gives the mind great scope to contemplate aesthetics and the direction of human affairs. Gross’ emphasis on style, technique, and beauty is telling. This is a painting by someone who can paint well. It has beauty and narrative although the absurd anachronism of its cast and its implicit polemic threaten to overwhelm its winsome charms. Contemporary critics, distrustful of beauty and meaning, accuse the style of being intellectually facile. To them the symbols become merely pictorial and lose their meaning. I feel like that may sometimes be true of Mark Ryden, who does indeed seem to have lost sight of what Lincoln and pre-pubescent girls mean. Yet that isn’t true here. This painting is not located in the great morass of “irony” (where today’s art establishment wanders, phony, lost, and alienated). Instead this hearkens back to Puritan symbolic painting—if that had not been lumbered with the problems of the past. It is a vision from the artist’s heart of a more perfect America.