by Barbara Morris
With the past year and a half feeling like a dizzying funhouse ride gone bad, people from diverse walks of life are taking action: marching, calling elected officials, signing petitions, knitting pink pussy hats, even running for office. Artists have joined in, extending a long tradition of political protest, ranging from Goya's Disasters of War and Picasso's Guernicat to Daumier's caustic social commentary, Philip Guston’s Poor Richard series and acerbic contemporary works protesting racism and genocide by Goya's almost-namesake, Enrique Chagoya. All pertain to the current exhibition of pithy, elegant, beautifully crafted and satirical works by Lou Beach, titled Riot Rumphaus, his second show at the gallery.
The LA artist’s series of small- to medium-scale collages are comprised of fantastical images that are every bit as surreal as the events that inspired them. Each is densely packed with imagery, information and implication, beginning with the title. “Riot,” for example, could mean riotous color. Or, an actual riot, triggered by the tragicomic, buffoon-like statements made by the 45thpresident. “Rumphaus” is also a particularly resonant word. It carries sinister Teutonic
overtones that might be rightly applied to the massive posterior inhabiting a certain house at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It’s also worth noting that the artist, now in his 70s, emigrated from Germany to New York as a child, before relocating to the West Coast in his ‘20s, his perspective on the rise of Nazism no doubt influenced by this heritage. His involvement in fine art follows a highly successful career as illustrator, particularly of record album covers.
The show's signature work, (Some) Very Fine People, riffs off a statement Trump made, maintaining that there were “some very fine people” on both sides of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, VA, an event that claimed the life of a female counter protester. The piece portrays Trump, his face a garbled mass of flayed anatomy, perched on a crumbling pile of ionic columns. His stubby, frog-like arms protrude from a gray, pinstriped oval of a torso, accessorized by a red power tie and flag lapel pin. A bald eagle serves, ironically, as toupee. Venomous bile spews from his mouth in the form of large oozing drops of black, a device Beach has used in this and earlier series of work.
In Lady Maga (Que Sarah, Sarah), Beach shoots a skull from the gaping mouth of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Nearby, a winged creature with a reptilian skull, like some Boschian demon, listens intently. Below, a black-and-white postcard of the White House, a gentle reminder of better days, is overlaid with speech bubbles—signaling, no doubt, the
president’s nonstop tweets. Here, too, the title packs a multivalent punch. It's a fusion of Lady Gaga and Trump’s racist campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” It may also be a reference to Doris Day’s Academy Award-winning rendition of Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) in Alfred Hitchcock's gripping 1956 thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much. The skullduggery of the film certainly equates well to recent Russian intrigues and other shenanigans.
Three-dimensional elements, such as pennies, appear for the first time in this body of work. Six form a pyramid-shaped base for an obese bee-like insect in Ciao (Gran Bomba de Buena Suerte). Angular daggers fly from its red lips, while droplets of honey-colored fluid trickle down. Whimsical creatures with long legs walk below; one, its body an elongated potato shape, wears a crown and carries a large gold key. We may conclude from it that the lucky will become rich, or vice-versa.
In a flashback to an earlier, tricky presidency, Beach inserts the smiling face of Richard Nixon into Gilbert Stuart's iconic portrait of George Washington, titling it I Am Not a Liar. (Funny how the bar for what were once considered impeachable transgressions seems to have been raised in the intervening years.)
Beach also presents less-loaded images. Some, like Double Dutch for Romare Bearden, are even upbeat. It features an abstracted African American girl with pigtails skipping rope, the elliptical arcs energetically whipping above her head. The homage contained in the title gives credit where it’s due. A House in the Country (A Dream of Eden) has a girl's legs joined to a horseshoe body topped by a house/head. The decoration of the latter, with geometric shapes and patterning, recalls the cubist collages of Picasso, Juan Gris and others; while the eccentric figures suggest what Jim Nutt or another of Chicago's Hairy Who group might have come up with had they illustrated a children's primer. Underground comics and the work of Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam seem equally apropos.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Riot Rumphaus is the way Beach draws us into this prickly realm without bludgeoning us. The vintage feel of the collaged elements helps soften the blow, suggesting that the events pictured occurred in the distant past. Many are maniacally hysterical. Beach is tactful enough not to whip a dead horse, the horse, of course, being the viewer. The playful quality to the work, its deftness, whimsicality, and lightness remind us that even in the midst of dark days we must keep our sense of humor.
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Lou Beach: “Riot Rumphaus” @ Jack Fischer Gallery, Minnesota Street Project location, through May 19, 2018.
About the author:
Barbara Morris is a Bay Area-based writer and artist. She is a regular contributor to Artillery. She was a contributor to Art Ltd. for seven years and previously wrote for Artweekfor ten years, seven of them as a contributing editor. Her writing has appeared in WEAD, stretcher.org, and Artist's Dialogue, as well as numerous other publications. Morris holds an MFA from UC Berkeley.