Destruction and Repair, AKA That Old Hegelian Waltz

Written for exhibit Strange Glue, in Weston, MA, 2012:
This past year I’ve been working with images inspired by the agit prop art of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Posters glorifying Mao Zedong’s social programs were produced by the hundreds in 1960’s and 70’s, before Commie-kitsch had became a post-ironically hip graphic style in Asia. The posters of that era ranged in style from awkward woodcuts to full blown socialist realism, but regardless of style each image was composed to serve as a dogma-delivery device from the CCP – street tweets in an age when silkscreening was the high-tech improvement on woodblock printing.

Working Class Heroes image by Peggy Schutze Shearn
Working Class Heroes collage and acrylic on paper

(Chairman Mao suspected there were bourgeois elements in socialist China who were lusting after capitalism. He was right about that. What happened next was a big pile of nastiness, murder, betrayal, exile, oppression, repression and suffering. Later this was blamed on the “Gang of Four,” Communist party officials that included Mao’s wife, but not Mao himself. Go figure.)

I tried to keep my collage work as fast and dirty as my graphic approach to riffing on the Chinese propaganda images would allow; I put the exacto knife aside and tore the collage elements, using an acrylic gel medium to glue them to the canvas. Women have been working like this for generations, using fabric scraps to mend, appliqué, and quilt, recording their lives and imaginings in scrapbooks and visual diaries – in the 1900’s the Modernist movement discovered collage as an innovative variation on the flat plane of the canvas. Dada, the spiritual ancestor of the Photoshop aesthetic, refined the detour from European painting tradition by manipulating letterform, language, literature and photographic images.

Bits of superhero comic books are here as a palette of color and line; they were created, drawn, reproduced, torn apart, glued and painted. They come to the surface a beat or two after the larger image registers, signifiers from the Western world of eye-excitement and muscular magic. Also in this semiotic mash-up are pieces torn from “vintage” Chinese movie posters and a method of paint handling borrowed from my work with markers and pens as a graphic designer and product illustrator.

At the very least, Warhol’s work summoned up some cultural self-conscious about celebrity and the products of the mass media entertainment factory. His bland cynicism and his adoration of pop culture and had it all over his social critique. We may wink and nod at the ideological innocence of another culture’s imagery, but try telling that to the Kardashians. Or Jeff Koons. Or the presidential super-pacs.