Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Misuse of Kitsch: Michael Arcieri's Cold War Paintings

Robert Boyd

Michael Arcieri's new show at Avis Frank Gallery features a bunch of paintings of cold-war era imagery in canvases where three distinct images are arranged vertically.

Michael Arcieri, Bonneville Blast, 2012, oil on canvas, 48" x 45"

Michael Arcieri, New for Spring, 2012, oil on canvas, 48" x 45"

You will be forgiven if when you look at these paintings you are reminded of James Rosenquist--particularly I Love You in my Ford.

James Rosenquist, I Love You in my Ford, 1961, oil on canvas, 6'10¾" x 7'9½"

Michael Arcieri, Chaser, 2012, oil on canvas, 44" x 42"

Arcieri's Chaser will remind you of Rosenquist's F-111.

James Rosenquist, F-111, 1964-65, Oil on canvas and aluminum, 10' x 86'

James Rosenquist, F-111 (detail), 1964-65, Oil on canvas and aluminum, 10' x 86'

Michael Arcieri doesn't come off well in these comparisons. I Love You in My Ford related the all-American automobile to both sex and death, and in doing so spoke to its era of burgeoning highway expansion and the freedom promised by universal car ownership. Arcieri's images, by contrast, are a nostalgia trip. Their easy ironies might have been shocking if painted in 1961, but even then the juxtapositions would have seemed obvious and heavy-handed. Now, they are pointless. The Cold War ended--decisively--in 1989. Since then, the U.S. (and the world) have not faced an existential threat of war. This isn't to say we might not in the future. But as a subject of art, the Cold War has lost its urgency. Whereas, when Rosenquist painted F-111, every American above the age of 9 or so knew that nuclear war could erupt at any time, and if that happened, the nation, if not the world, would be obliterated.

In short, Arcieri's cold war paintings are trite and unoriginal. Arcieri is a skilled painter, but he employs those skills in this exhibit to make modestly clever works that have no urgency to them, no personal feeling. Comparing him to James Rosenquist, an artist captured the zeitgeist in a powerful and unexpected way, is unfair perhaps--but Arcieri brings the comparison on himself by blatantly copying the style that Rosenquist invented. It's a weird thing to say about an artist like Rosenquist who cultivated a distancing, mock-commercial-art style, but his work exudes authenticity; Arcieri's paintings are well-wrought but empty pastiches.

Michael Arcieri, Joe From the Bar, 1949, 2011, oil on canvas, 30" x 24"

In a separate gallery, Arcieri has a group of paintings, including Joe from the Bar, 1949, which look  paintings of freeze-frames from old movies shown on an old black-and-white television. But again, the strongest sensation one gets looking at these is of their profound unoriginality.

Gerhard Richter, Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi), 1965, oil on canvas, 87 cm x 50 cm

Again Arcieri is channeling another painter from the 60s--Gerhard Richter. And again, Arcieri falls far short. Joe From the Bar, 1949 is a banal film image. Onkel Rudi is, however, Richter's actual uncle. Rudi (Rudolf Schönfelder) was a Wermacht soldier and died in combat in World War II. Aside from the personal meaning of the image for Richter, it reflects the anguish that people of his generation felt acutely--that their parents and older relatives had all been Nazis. Like James Rosenquist's 60s paintings, Richter's employ a startlingly original idiom to tap into the spirit of his generation of Germans. Arcieri copies that idiom to make a banal but well-executed painting.

It's unreasonable to expect Arcieri to be as brilliant as Rosenquist and Richter, but he shouldn't paint like them if he doesn't want to be compared to them.  He can paint very well--he now needs to find his own direction and his own subject.



  1. It's embarrasing to see such nicly painted and empty knock-offs on gallery walls. I think the gallery would be aware of the obvious borrowed sources. We are mistaken to believe that Gallery owers or art buyers are aware of history. Not even clever.