No Bang For the Buck

By Christopher Michno

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Posted May 27, 2010 in Arts & Culture

“Pop Art Money”it sounds like a Madison Avenue high-concept brand that promises ephemeral pleasures: the latest super-product. De-coupled from its art historical reference, the title suggests an object that perfectly embodies the union of popular culture and art with all the sexiness and power of currency. Yet this “Pop Art Money” exhibition fails to live up to that expectation.

Robert Dowd’s currency paintings at the CCAA Museum of Art in Rancho Cucamonga share something of the Pop sensibility in his appropriation of the iconography of currency; however, Dowd’s interest in painterly qualities—open brushwork and under-painting that push his work toward sensual concerns—places his work awkwardly at the periphery of Pop Art. His painting seems genuinely unconcerned with ironic content, sociological comment or the desire to bridge high and low culture.

While other artists associated with Pop adopted commercial means of art production—the silkscreened images of Warhol, for example, which removed the presence of the human hand, or the work of James Rosenquist, who employed techniques he learned working as a sign and billboard painter—Dowd was looking backward.

Homage to Johns, formally the best of Dowd’s paintings in this show, references Jasper Johns’ target and flag paintings. It is a touching tribute, and Dowd produced it nearly 10 years after he was struck by the image of Johns’ Target on the cover of Art in America. It is among a number of homage paintings in this show—one to Roy Lichtenstein, another to Gauguin, more to van Gogh. His paintings, on the surface, pleasant enough to look at, more often than not represent a precious quality in how he conceived of the work of other artists. His homage to Gauguin and especially van Gogh feels sentimental—a kind of restatement of each artists’ style set within Dowd’s signature currency format.

What is missing in these pieces is the ability to dismantle another’s original, subvert the core to the artist’s own meaning and inhabit the piece like his life depends on it. Imagine listening to the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique as interpreted by Lawrence Welk—all the sex, pulsating nastiness, drive and ragged complexity sucked right out by that sedate flavorless accordion.

Dowd’s inclusion in the 1962 exhibit “New Painting of Common Objects” at the Pasadena Art Museum, along with artists whose aesthetic is solidly Pop—Warhol (whose silkscreened 200 One Dollar Bills sold last year for $43.7 million), Lichtenstein, Jim Dine—and his exhibition record on the West Coast over the next few years left him associated with that movement. It is with the passage of time that the thing becomes clear; the label is amiss, like a nom de guerre that no longer fits. Unlike Dowd’s friend Phillip Hefferton, whose goofy humor and clunky painting shared some qualities with the work of Red Grooms, Dowd’s painting is earnest. The most original works in “Pop Art Money” are his U.S. Treasury pieces that depict the treasury building being overtaken by disasters. In Fire at U.S. Treasury, Dowd depicts both the image of the Treasury and the graphic design of the painted Treasury bill being consumed by separate fires. The rather elaborate story behind this group of paintings is an attempt by Treasury agents to confiscate his work. It seems what he needed most was a fire under his work.

“Pop Art Money” Robert Dowd exhibition at CCAA Museum of Art (north wing of Joseph Filippi Winery), 12467 Base Line Rd., Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 463-3733; www.ccaamuseum.org. Thru June 13. Open Fri-Sun, noon-5PM.


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