Ron English's Kiddy Guernica is quintessential pop surrealism.
Ron English's Kiddy Guernica is quintessential pop surrealism.
Courtesy of Station Museum of Contemporary Art

Pop Rocks

In the documentary POPaganda, on view at the Station Museum as part of the "Power Pathos" group exhibition, artist Ron English says billboard liberators are modern-day superheroes. These alterers of advertisements move among us, their lives fairly normal on the surface, but they have secret identities, secret hideouts and a secret agenda to subvert the visual noise thrown in our faces every day, the repetitive ballyhooing of everything from electric razors to Christianity.

English knows what he's talking about. Right around the time he was in town to paint a larger-than-life-size interpretation of Pablo Picasso's Guernica, a couple of billboards appeared around town bearing his distinctive mark. One, at the corner of Montrose and Fairview, was a picture of Jesus piloting a spaceship. The other, right down the street from the Station, had the Lord and Savior holding a Budweiser with the caption "King of Jews. King of Beers." We're not saying English had any part in these culture jams -- hey, he'll come forward if he wants to -- but anyone familiar with his work has seen images like these before.

And anyone who wasn't raised on a fundamentalist compound will have seen some of the imagery in "Power Pathos," a group show featuring five artists whose work mines the memes of advertising, cartoons, comics, carnivals, graffiti, tattoos, surfing and other bits of pop-culture detritus. These artists, all of whom have Texas ties, can be lumped together under the term "lowbrow," although the curators of the show prefer "pop surrealism," a nod to the direct line between the works in the show and those of the surrealists. These contemporary artists play with the subconscious, although theirs is the collective subconscious of the media age.


"Power Pathos"

Station Museum, 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900.

Through September 24.

Anthony Ausgang offers up several paintings of his signature cats, brightly colored and drawn in the cartoony style of Tom or Sylvester -- that is, if Jerry and Tweety were looking at them after dropping a couple of hits of acid. Eat or Be Eaten (2006) has four connected mouths and three connected cat heads that turn in on one another, making for a bizarre feline ouroboros. These images are highly stylized and hint at computer manipulation, signaling a development toward further abstraction in Ausgang's style. It's as if the artist has become tired of drawing the same cats over and over again and has decided to mix it up.

Nobody does repetitive drawing like man-child Daniel Johnston, whose work seems to be rediscovered and lauded every few years, this time around by the Whitney Biennial and Infernal Bridegroom Productions, which produced a rock opera based on his life. Over a hundred of Johnston's drawings (1970 to 2005) are on display at the Station, giving us the opportunity to see multiple variations of the artist's stock characters (Captain America, Joe Boxer, that frog with tentacle eyes) and his recurring themes (good vs. evil, unrequited love, mental illness). Sometimes it's hard not to feel like a Peeping Tom when staring at these creations -- the artist, by most accounts, is a few colors short of a full palette -- but you can't deny the sense of humor he brings to his demons. In one drawing, a pipe-smoking husband tells his wife, "The boy is insane," to which she replies, "He's just being funny." In another, a self-portrait, we see Johnston, missing the top of his head, tinkling with piano keys while thinking, "I dream of superstardoom."

Gibby Haynes's drawings (1995 to 2006) look just like what you'd expect from the lead singer of the Butthole Surfers. In other words, they're weird. With pen and paper, he creates doodles resembling the illustrations of Shel Silverstein, and his gouache works, full of bright colors and expressive figures, seem even more tailor-made for children (although most parents wouldn't let their kids go near the guy). Many of the drawings are accentuated with cursive scribbles, slightly illegible poems of sorts that add subtle formal touches. I tried scanning the words for familiar lyrics to Butthole Surfers songs, but then I realized I have no idea what Haynes is singing most of the time. Also on display is Burning Poppies (2006), an installation of 150 cereal boxes created specifically for the show. The boxes have been sliced up and woven together like a mat, and even though there are some nice touches -- a green swirl of Apple Jacks here, a yellow swath of Cheerios and Kix there -- the installation ultimately seems slapdash and derivative. Perhaps Haynes, realizing his works didn't have near as many cultural references as the other artists', decided at the last minute to add some pop to his tart.

Clark Fox is an artist who clearly didn't have that problem. Mr. Peanut, Big Chief, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy -- these iconic gents permeate his paintings. The JFK series (1998 to 2002) features 48 paintings of the president lined up in rows, each slightly different from the rest, but the repetition of the icon is what's key. A large mural, Two American Revolutionaries Hugo Chavez and George Washington (2006), covers an entire wall and depicts the titular figures as well as Mr. Peanut and an airplane bomber, the same type of craft used by the Nazi war machine when flattening the small Basque village of Guernica in 1937.

Sixteen hundred civilians were wounded or killed during that raid, and the village burned for three days, prompting Picasso to create his Guernica for the Paris Exhibition. That masterpiece has provided Ron English with endless inspiration, and three of the works in "Power Pathos" riff upon it, but none so largely as Kiddy Guernica, a 2006 work created on site at the Station. The famous horse is still there, his head twisting in anguish, but this time he's part of a merry-go-round. In the center of the work English has situated a boy, decked out in leather hat and goggles, manning a small fighter plane with a cold look in his eyes. By depicting both bombed and bomber as children, English emphasizes the number of civilian casualties in war while illuminating the killer inside all of us, inside all of our children, suckled on a steady diet of propaganda and toy guns. It's quintessential pop surrealism, a mixing of high and low, young and old, a simultaneous celebration and denigration of postmodern life, all topped off with a heaping dose of the carnivalesque.


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