reprint: life is beautiful descends upon los angeles

in anticipation of the upcoming film about banksy and mr. brainwash, here’s a re-publishing of an article i wrote a few years back.

originally posted June 18, 2008

life is beautiful descends upon los angeles

Amongst speculation that he is the puppet of the British artist, Banksy, Mr. Brainwash finally launched his debut solo exhibit inside of the former CBS production studios in Hollywood.

The highly derivative, self-deprecating collection offers a wide range of sculptures, paintings, frescoes, silk-screens and set constructions, but the work should really be seen as a single, very expansive installation piece. Truly impressive by virtue of its sheer volume, the skillful mimicry on display demands commentary; its sly sense of humour and coy cross-cultural references practically scream out for ridicule.

The work could be described as a three-dimensional universe populated by easily recognized icons of pop art that have been remixed, recycled and recreated through the mischievous eyes of a street artist. It is as if one has opened up an art history volume only to discover that it has been given a very playful and thorough once-over by the designers of the video game Grand Theft Auto.

There’s a large set construction that quickly brings Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to mind (and perhaps unintentionally, the photography of Miriam Backström) yet its exterior walls have been spray-painted with graffiti and the chairs inside have been knocked over. The idyllic Hopper scene that we know through his painting has been resolutely converted into an urban wasteland, completed by a paint-splattered police squad car that is parked just outside, emergency lights flashing. The scene presents itself as an abandoned space, riffing on a collection of dystopian views of the American city that in the late hours of night would be populated by skateboarders, street thugs, and vaguely sinister comic book characters.

Mr. Brainwash, also known as MBW (and also known as Thierry Guetta), casts a wide net in his romp through the catalog of pop art icons. Here’s your reference to Rauschenberg, here’s your Warhol, your Rosenquist, here’s the signature work by Robert Indiana, where Guetta replaces the word LOVE with PUNK.

Mr. Brainwash makes his weapon of choice abundantly clear: beyond the barely opened door to a vault, one spies an endless arsenal of golden cans of spray paint that are safely stacked behind security bars; their numbers (and potential to wreak havoc) seem to stretch onwards to infinity.

But the make-over does not stop with pop art, Mr. Brainwash stomps through the fields of Dutch masters, reworking pastoral landscapes into garbage-strewn, graffiti-ridden playgrounds, though it may be lost on some Americans that many rural roads in Europe actually look like this – that is, these days an ancient mill seen at the terminus of a cobblestone country lane is very likely to be surrounded by the pockmarked walls that are covered with graffiti as depicted in Mr. Brainwash’s re-interpretation.

Portraiture from the Dutch golden age and the Italian renaissance have also been reworked. Among others, Batman, Hannibal Lecter and Run DMC make appearances in paintings, while Mr. Brainwash adds a can of spray paint or a table tennis paddle to mash-ups on the Renaissance.

Looking years ahead to a day when critics will reflect upon this outburst of productivity, one wonders if the work will remain relevant.

Surely, the set pieces that make their debuts in a city known for its false fronts offer an interesting commentary on the cultural values of make-believe and the Hollywood treatment. Mr. Brainwash’s stagings seem to question its displaced nostalgia not only for the original works that it references but also for the Hollywood/America that likely never existed.

But what about the very topical references to the tabloid stars and political figures of the day? Ranging from, among others, celebrities like Britney Spears to political participants such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain, will the art works age gracefully? Already given a mocking reception (by virtue of the Warhol/Banksy filter that references pieces which allude to Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth Taylor, not to mention Marilyn Monroe), the works were likely never intended to be received with dignity, and one suspects that, after the hype, banter and inflated sales, these particular works will fade into the darkened abyss of forgotten clichés.

Perhaps the most interesting pieces are those sculptural works which make use of books as their central motif. The library and book repository have been transformed into piles of literary garbage. A mountain is made out of castaway thrift store books, with an apple laptop standing triumphantly on its peak. In another work, the books have been repurposed so that they form the walls of a room. They don’t sit on shelves, orderly lining the walls of the room, they ARE the walls, chaotically fastened, stuffed, or smashed into place, pages splayed open in some cases, while in other places their spines have been battered and bent, suggesting that the books themselves are useful only as a physical object. Their contents are no longer needed and therefore their inherent knowledge and wisdom is likely lost in its transformed environment.

As for the origins of Mr. Brainwash, some say that the driving force behind this work is the notorious Banksy. Certainly, there’s a lot of similarity between the two – and if it turns out to be Banksy, then good for him: he has created another spectacle. If not, then the mysteriously roguish (though carefully constructed) persona of Mr. Brainwash owes him a huge debt.

– Christian Svanes Kolding

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