“Holy Crap!” at the Fireplace project

By Ellen T. White
Dan Colen's Hard Day's Night, 2011, trash and paint on canvas
Dan Colen's Hard Day's Night, 2011, trash and paint on canvas

Collectively, the effect of “Holy Crap!” – a group show now on view at the Fireplace project – is like meeting a hellion on the day that he’s finally decided to reform. Indeed, the artists Nate Lowman, Dan Colen, Rob Pruitt, and Piotr Uklanski have carved out blazing, independent paths in pop, transforming images, materials, and ideas into the aesthetic equivalent of thumbing your nose. Typically, their works issue a dare to the idea of art itself, not to mention our market culture and political norms. “Holy Crap!” promised a combustible moment – not a tidy show of works that, with a few exceptions, might largely go unnoticed in your living room walls.

A collaboration of these four artists – who in various permutations have worked together in the past – is a no-brainer, given their affinities on so many levels. Indeed, Michele Maccarone, the curator, saw this group show as something like an “Ocean’s Eleven.” Their combined star power would create an irresistible force of its own, particularly interesting against the backdrop of muscular East End artists such as de Kooning and Pollock (the Pollock-Krasner House is across the road from the Fireplace project).

As its name might suggest, “Holy Crap!” highlights the artists’ practice of using scrap, detritus, and trash in works, which can mean anything from drop cloths and Chinese pencil shavings to dental floss and Styrofoam. For this intimate space – the made-over former Talmage Garage – Ms. Maccarone focused on smaller works that are non-labor intensive, i.e. rapidly made. At her eponymous gallery in the West Village of New York, Maccarone has presented all of these artists in ambitious shows.

“Holy Crap!” opened in mid-August with one of Mr. Pruitt’s yard sales, though he was selling his own belongings this time. Apparently, a few mistook the sale for what it looked like – wondering, no doubt, at empty paints cans that were going for 50 bucks. Mr. Pruitt is an interesting case. The dean of the group at the age of 48, he was cast out of the art world for a 1992 show with Jack Early at Leo Castelli Gallery. Their show’s perceived comment on the marketing of African American culture did not go down in a climate where acute political correctness was becoming a gathering storm.

Mr. Pruitt made his way back in a lonely decade later, since offering works such as “Cocaine Buffet,” in which viewers were invited partake of minimalist lines stretched across 16 feet of mirror on the floor. He is best known for his trash culture paintings of Panda bears, which he began in 2000. Mr. Pruitt’s 2010 “Pattern and Degradation,” at Gavin Brown Gallery and Maccarone, riffed on Rumspringa, a sanctioned period of wild-oat sewing among the Amish. To a 13,000-square-foot space, Mr. Pruitt brought paintings based on Amish quilts, monumental self-portraits, a photo-based painting of Cinnabon buns, cast-off tire sculptures, and wallpaper made pictures of Mr. Pruitt’s Facebook friends and “kitlers,” photos of kittens resembling Hitler that were viral on the Web.

In Mr. Pruitt’s yard sale, there is a hilarious humility and arrogance in offering up art in three upended water bottles, a marker wedged in the top, all held together by packing tape embossed with Mr. Pruitt’s signature. Or a “wreath” made of old athletic shoes. It harks back to his 1999 “101 Art Ideas You Can Do Yourself,” which was reportedly more Martha Stewart than ironic conceit. “You don’t need to look at my work, you can do it yourself,” Mr. Pruitt told the actor James Franco in an Interview Q & A, in a campaign to make art and its rarified world more accessible. And, indeed, you could do it yourself if you’d thought of it first and had the brazen confidence (and sense of humor) to pull it off. The artist who assigns value has all the control. In the adjoining gallery of the Fireplace Project, Pruitt offers up “Holy Crap, 2012” – that is, Styrofoam “dinosaur dung” varnished in cosmi-chrome.

Through his own showy brand of passive aggression, Mr. Pruitt takes center stage, though Mr. Lowman, whom Ms. Maccarone represents, appears to be the featured player in the show’s press release. In the decade he has shown his work, Mr. Lowman has become an art darling. His paintings, sculpture, and bricolage communicate an alienation – meditations, often, on a culture of violence and political atrocity. Mr. Lowman’s appropriated images of a topless Nicole Brown Simpson, the Iran contra conspirator Oliver North, de Kooning’s “Marilyn Monroe,” and smiley faces propose, in his words, “second, third, and fourth” meanings to familiar pop culture iconography and obsessions. By all reports, his disaster paintings of an Iceland volcano or a flood in Brazil – executed in an automotive spray paint gun and layered alkyd – show a hauntingly eerie detachment to disaster on an epic scale.

To “Holy Crap!,” Mr. Lowman brings five works – his own unaltered canvas drop cloths that are speckled, sprayed, and smeared with paint, oil, and dirt, and stretched across wooden frames. “Dirt Snuggler, 2012” and “Dirt Devil, 2012” are the kind of abstract pieces that might, in other circumstances, tie together outlying pastel fabrics in home décor. That these accidental canvases are so blandly attractive proposes perhaps an interesting irony. The frame of “I’m Loving It, 2012” has been fashioned into an enlarged Magic Tree (the noxious deodorizers that dangle over car dashboards); canvas pieces in “The Awesome One, 2012” are sewn together with dental floss. It’s in these kinds of interventions that Lowman’s work on this show begins to show a little backbone.

The original impetus for “Holy Crap!” was a proposed collaboration between Mr. Lowman and Mr. Uklanski, who has two signature pieces in the show of pencil shavings under Plexiglas in 36-by-26 inch gilded frames. But you’ve got to wonder if in this context of new pieces that are purposely off the cuff, works that were created in 2007 are phoning it in. Or even whether they could truly be called collaborative. Or does Mr. Uklanski consider “Untitled (Cleopatra)” and “Untitled (Lashinda)” in keeping with the theme of objects now relegated to a discard pile? As serenely lovely as she is, “Untitled (Cleopatra)” – an expanse of fine pale yellow pencil shavings – has the look of exotic curry with an expiring shelf life.

The glamour piece in “Holy Crap!” is Mr. Colen’s voluptuous “Hard Day’s Night, 2012,” his single entry in the show. Rubberneckers to Mr. Colen’s exciting (and incredibly accomplished) career will remember NEST in which he and friends rolled naked like caged rodents through shredded telephone books or the photo of himself from the neck down with a Jewish prayer shawl over his erect penis, offered at a Berlin show. Mr. Colen has also turned out meticulous photo realistic riffs on Disney imagery, a “Birdshit” series of paintings, and recreated chewing gum packaging, ultimately using the gum as a medium.

“Hard Day’s Night, 2012” – a 49-by-38-by-12 inch bricolage – incorporates objects such as an empty Coke can, an overturned basket, a work boot, a coffee cup, an electric plug, and beach detritus into a kind of shipwrecked Rauschenberg. Layers of splattered paint that look as though they are still wet give the piece its lusciousness. The work lives up not only to the title “Holy Crap!” but injects a kind of joyous, anarchistic spirit into the show that is largely missing elsewhere.