Andy Warhol - Dream America SD Museum of Art June 17 - September 10 by Keith Boyd 06.18.06
America. Dream America, daydream nation. Where do we go if we want to understand this country? The news won’t be much help. Our news media in the U.S. is so closely tied to both the corporate and political structures as to be useless. You’ll get plenty of information. Of course, it will only be the information that either the Whitehouse or Phifzer wants you to see. What else is there? History books? Aside from a few brilliant but marginalized voices such as Howard Zinn, Cornell West and Noam Chomsky you’d be hardpressed to find much of value. The version of history we teach and have available to us tends to be a one-sided stream of cardboard cutout stereotypes displaying America’s ‘great achievements”. So, where do we go? We crave meaning. Human beings are wired to seek out meanings and patterns. Our eyes can’t rest on an object for more than a few seconds without seeking out how it fits into our schema or understanding of our experience.
I’d put forth that if you’d like to get a glimpse of what makes America tick you could do worse than spending some time at the San Diego Museum of Art’s new show, “ANdy Warhol’s Dream America” (June 17-Sept.10). Andy puts it best;
“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
I don’t think Andy’s being coy there. Well, at least not entirely so. Surfaces are what his work is all about. I know we often identify the surface of things as not having much to do with depth. ‘You can’t judge a book by it’s cover” and “Beauty is only skin deep” are two of our timeworn responses to surface. But in Warhol’s work what surfaces there are! Shadows made from ink mixed with diamond dust. Ultra-vivid greens, purples and red popping off of canvas and paper. Repeated faces of celebrities in every color imaginable. Green Marilyn Monroes pouting at blue eye shadow wearing Chairman Mao’s. Cotton candy pink and silver electric chairs nestled amongst day-glo cow heads. These pieces are a miracle of color and line. The technique is so clean and masterful that if that were all, it would still be worthy enough to warrant our contemplation. This isn’t to say that Warhol’s meaning is cheap, shallow or easy to understand. At the exhibit I sat watching the long, single-take film portraits of various New York undergroundites called, “Screen Tests” when a lady cautiously approached. She’d been by a few times and had finally decided to ask me a question. Why she chose me, I have no idea. Perhaps she figured that as I sat there seemingly enjoying these films, I must be able to help her.
“Is something going to happen?”
I looked up not entirely sure what she meant.
“I mean does something come on or change?”
I explained that these were called “Screen Tests” and that Warhol made them of almost everyone he met but that no, nothing else would actually happen on the screen. I said that they were sort of film portraits that revealed a lot by doing very little. She nodded and said,
“So, there’s no biographical information coming up?”
As I answered no she walked off with a disappointed look. I don’t add this to make fun or stand above. Sometimes the hardest things to see are right in front of us.
America is all about surfaces. Walk through any city and you’ll see it. Shiny glass and mirrors echo every move. What space isn’t reflective is cluttered with repeated logos and advertisements. So perhaps Andy Warhol’s art can fill us in on the most prevalent features and details of this country. It’s all there; the deaths, the ads, the old west, the celebrities, the surface. In a sense walking through this exhibit of Warhol’s work is a photorealistic portrait of life in America, Dream America, Daydream Nation.