RESEARCH: The Intersection of Consumer Culture With Political and Natural Realities: James Rosenquist in Phantoms of a Utopian Will / Like Most Follies, More Than a Joke and More Than a Whim

Jordan Lemoine | NOVember 20, 2015

In his current exhibition at SFU Gallery, Alex Morrison has selected a number of works from the SFU Art Collection, including a piece by pop artist James Rosenquist. The exhibition considers the subversion of counter culture by popular culture through the absorption of the former into the latter, and vice-versa. Rosenquist’s work (as well as the general pop art movement) naturally fits into this theme, as he appropriates the aesthetic of consumer advertisements for his own counter-cultural message.

Sketch For Forest Ranger (1968), a 24 x 20” piece constructed from two vinyl sheets mounted onto bars made from Plexiglas, was created as part of a portfolio of prints and editions produced by Leo Castelli in 1968. The university acquired 8 of the 10 works in this series in 1968, including pieces by Lee Bontecou, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, Larry Poons, Frank Stella and Robert Morris.

Image: Sketch For Forest Ranger, 1968, James Rosenquist

Sketch For Forest Ranger (1968) would seem to be related in name, construction and form to another larger piece by Rosenquist entitled Forest Ranger (1967). The word “sketch” which would seem to imply that the “sketch” is a prototype for the other work. However given that Sketch For Forest Ranger was produced a year later, the title may instead be referring to the smaller scale and simpler construction in relation to Forest Ranger; it is a “sketch” in the sense that it is a bare bones rendition of the complete work–an example, or a model.

Both works are hanging mobiles constructed from two clear plastic sheets. One of the sheets is cut down the center so that the second piece can slide within it to form a cross. When the mobile rotates, the piece presents either a single full image or two half-images. The bottom halves of both sheets are cut into thin, vertical strips, like tasseled curtains.

Image: Forest Ranger, 1967, James Rosenquist

In the larger iteration of Forest Ranger, an oversized saw, held by a hyper-realistic hand intersects an image of a military tank. The work is done to such a large scale that people are able to walk through the tasseled ends of plastic. In this way, the viewer of the work becomes an active part of it. The scale of Sketch for Forest Ranger is much too small to allow for the same interactivity, however the work still seems to invite tactile appreciation through its tasseled ends. This work also features different graphics: a swing, illustrated with the style and bright colours characteristic of the pop art aesthetic (reflecting, more particularly, Rosenquist’s style of mimicking advertisements) intersecting a more photorealistic depiction of what appears to be a stalk of celery, radishes and lettuce in a bed of ice, similar to what you might find in the produce department of a supermarket or at a buffet.

Rosenquist is known for his juxtaposition of multiple, meshed images within a single work to convey a critique or message. For example, President Elect (1960–61/1964) combines three images; John F. Kennedy, half a Chevrolet, and a stale slice of cake. Regarding this work, Rosenquist said: “The face was from Kennedy’s campaign poster. I was very interested at that time in people who advertised themselves. Why did they put up an advertisement of themselves? So that was his face. And his promise was half a Chevrolet and a piece of stale cake.”

Image of President Elect, 1960-61/1964, James Rosenquist

Rosenquist associates presidential campaigns, and perhaps the presidential role, with consumerist bribes for the masses. He seems to say that Kennedy hopes to gain your vote by promising economic excess, but even a promise as superficial as that cannot be kept, as is made evident by the state of the cake and delivering only a portion of a car. Rosenquist, through his juxtaposition of unrelated images, creates a new meaning that directly attacks the state of democracy in a consumer, capitalist economy.

Applying the same method of analysis to Forest Ranger, a similar message can be read. The graphic of the tank is comparable to Kennedy’s face in President Elect for their political nature (as the US was engaged in the Vietnam War at the time of the work’s’ production), and the graphic of the saw is comparable to the Chevrolet or slice of cake because they both reflect an element of American consumerist culture. In both works, consumerism and pop culture intersect, both literally and figuratively, with broader social and political currents.

Sketch For Forest Ranger lacks a politically charged image, however the theme of consumerism remains. What connects the two images in content is the idea of a consumable, domesticated nature. That is, an enjoyable aspect of nature (or the outdoors), is converted into a consumerist product. The greens provided by the earth are claimed by consumerism and made a product no different than a car or handsaw in the image of produce; the enjoyment of the outdoors–wind, fresh air, etc.–is even converted into a product through the red swing, likely purchased at the same supermarket as the produce. Food and entertainment once naturally provided have becomes toys of consumer society: nature is now a product too.

The meaning of the images is only a partial interpretation of the work, as the physical construction is elaborate in itself. The tactility of the work’s construction, and the dynamism of its form and rotation as a mobile, lures the viewer into having an active relationship with it. The work is not a static, unchanging object, but one that shifts and evolves. In tracing that shift, that evolution, the viewer’s relationship to the work evolves as well, and the viewer must constantly call that relationship into question, and reevaluate the meaning. Sketch For Forest Ranger, in its emphasis on form and material, creates a physical relationship to the viewer in addition to the relationship it creates in the cultural implications of its images.


For more information on Alex Morrison: Phantoms of a Utopian Will / Like Most Follies, More Than a Joke and More Than a Whim click here

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