Scott Grieger | Selected Works 1969-2007

Scott Grieger | Selected Works 1969-2007

March, 2007

REVIEW by Christopher Knight, LA Times, March 23, 2007

Jokes have been important to art for a long time. Whether ancient Greek vases making fun of Athenian manners and mores or contemporary photographs of Weimaraners dressed up like eager suburbanites, they are an efficient way to layer levels of potent social meaning in an inviting image. Scott Grieger has known this for a long time.

The 35 works in Grieger's exhibition at Patricia Faure Gallery form a miniature retrospective. Because the earlier works are not often seen, they are of unusual interest.

The earliest is a wicked collage from 1969, fash- ioned in the immediate wake of Pop art's disruptive insertion of mass media tropes into avant-garde practice. Its razor-sharp fusion of humor and pathos is emblematic.

The November Vogue magazine has been slyly altered, simply through the addition of a New Guinea tribesman's head, smeared with red and blue pigment, over that of the now-obscured cover girl. Her big blond sausage curls frame his grinning, cigarette-smoking brown face.

Vogue meets National Geographic in an issue touting "The Most Romantic Looks in the World" and promising to guide eager consumers toward great new ways to wear their hair. The ridiculous picture is at once funny and deplorable. Any shred of human dignity is transformed into the tragicomic visage of a universal clown.

But who, exactly, is the fool? Grieger's collage splits the difference between the Papuan and us.

The November '69 Vogue cover coincided with United Nations' capitulation to a Cold War-era political move backed by President Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to allow anti-Communist Indonesian strongman Suharto to annex Papua New Guinea. The stage-managed takeover took place behind a sham election, nobly billed as the "Act of Free Choice." That oxymoron ricochets off the glossy surface of this American fashion magazine, as if it were a veritable pinball machine.

Perhaps the show's most intriguing works are a group of 1971 "Impersonations" in which Grieger photographed himself imitating well-known works of contemporary art. In all of them the longhaired, bearded artist wears jeans, a T-shirt and desert boots, standard hippie-gear of the period. Self-portraits of the artist in his studio do double-duty as representations of the artist's art in his studio.

Impersonations (1971-2007) ed. of 2, Colorspan Pigment Print on Canvas, 35.5'' x 23.75'' L-R: Barnett Newman, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenburg, John McCracken, Robert Irwin

Grieger, standing rigid with arms at his sides, leans back against the wall to become a John McCracken plank-sculpture. Kneeling on all fours with a tire tube around his waist, he's the goat in Robert Rauschenberg's notorious "Monogram." (Goat, of course, is slang for the butt of a joke.) Suspended on a wall with a black stripe down the front of his white T-shirt, he's an abstract Barnett Newman "zip" painting. With his head isolated on a white wall surrounded by a cloverleaf of shadows, he's an illuminated Robert Irwin wall- disk.

Grieger alters the chosen works' meanings in humorous and revealing ways. Newman's spiritually oriented abstractions are represented by a Jesus-figure who seems to levitate, as if ascending heavenward, while he's also a stereotypical pothead getting high. The Irwin-style floating head puts the artist in an intense spotlight, a situation that hadn't really happened in American cultural life until the 1960s. Meanwhile he's likened to a trophy captured by a big-game hunter.

Like Bruce Nauman, who was working in Pasadena at the same time these photographs were made, Grieger is visibly ruminating about the conflicted place of art and artists in contemporary society. What makes his work distinctive, however, is also what makes it prescient: To a radical degree, Grieger embraces unadorned entertainment as an artistic vehicle.

As much as Marx, Wittgenstein or any other fashionable theorist of the day, these photographs are indebted to the likes of Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks. (The critic Dave Hickey has taken note of Grieger's Hollywood adolescence hanging out with comedians.) These exceptional photographs are designated "Imper- sonations" as much for their showbiz strategy as for the mimicry of art that Grieger so wittily enacts.