Earnest Irony: The Deadpan Passions of Clark V. Fox by Emily Warner

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Clark Fox on view at CUE Art Foundation.

 Clark Fox's paintings, silkscreens and wooden sculptures are at once deadpan and heartfelt. In their pop culture references and their grid-like multiplicity, they have a cool '60s aesthetic. Their painterly and textural qualities, though, are anything but cool: sensual brushwork and color areas reveal an artist deeply involved with his materials and invested in the subtleties and hidden histories of his subjects. His figures, flat images culled from advertising, photographs and dollar bills, are reworked into portraits and complex pictograms, layered with extra, often enigmatic, meanings. The ability to squeeze new value out of established icons is at the core of Clark's practice and it functions best at a slow burn: the full impact of the works comes along gradually.

A frequent subject is George Washington, the illustrious founding father whose image has been memorialized in both high-art history painting and the everyday currency of the dollar bill. This is precisely the juncture from which Clark's own portraits depart. His Caunotaucarius (George Washington), 1995-2007, takes the 1796 Gilbert Stuart painting (the visage reproduced on the one-dollar bill) as its model, rendering the familiar features with a rash of unfamiliar handlings: pointillist dots and map-like color areas in the face and hair, and painterly scrawls in blue and purple in the background. Clark both stresses the mass-printed flatness of the figure, painting in, for example, graphic cross-hatchings to render shadows, and endows it with a new coloristic intensity. Written at the bottom of the canvas like the title of an official portrait bust is the name "Caunotaucarius," the Native American epithet for the president meaning "Town Taker." With this second narrative inserted, the familiar Washington slips into a different sort of role, his steady presidential gaze shading into one of unnerving complicity.

Stuart's oil sketch was purposefully left unfinished as a study for his own future paintings, which has the unintended result of allowing other artists to complete the painting their own way. Indeed, much of Clark's work is about putting new endings on old stories. Clark is Native American, his family of Cherokee and Powhatan descent, and many of his works wryly recast the history of America from that perspective. His 38 Lincoln Paintings (2006-2008) are an homage not to the Civil War President but to the 38 Dakota tribes people hanged in a mass execution under Lincoln's orders at the end of the 1862 Dakota Wars.[1] Each canvas in the Lincoln series derives from the same iconic image and is enlivened, like the Washington portrait, with colored backgrounds. You notice tiny details, and there are subtle, even cunning sleights of hand; most of the Lincolns, for example, are silkscreened, but a few have been hand-painted in a silkscreen manner. The series owes much in style and subject to works by artists like Warhol and Tom Wesselmann. Clark, though, is less interested in exploring the visuality of commodity culture per se than he is in using its rhetoric to unearth specific historical narratives. If he empties out the icon, it is only ultimately to assign it a new meaning.

Alongside its ironic sting, the Lincoln series suggests a subtle disappointment. Clark was awed by the Lincoln Memorial when he first saw it as a high school student in Washington, D.C., deeming the seated Lincoln figure "the most moving piece of American sculpture." In fact, his choice of a source image for the 38 Lincolns (an 1864 Anthony Berger photograph) is based on its visual consonances with the monumental power of Daniel Chester French's sculpture. The series is thus a memorial not only to lost lives absented from history, but to a former faith in images of power. The 45 JFK Paintings evince a similar tension between youthful optimism and a later, hardened skepticism: he has painted one a year since Kennedy's assassination and will continue to do so until the government offers a reasonable explanation of the death. Each year, Clark poses the same question and finds the affable Kennedy face yielding up the same blank silence. We get a powerful sense not only of what has been suppressed, but of what we can no longer believe in.

In the mid 1970s, Clark turned to the figure of Mr. Peanut as a subject in his work. Mr. Peanut has thrived among the cultural icons that constitute Clark's vocabulary and has become a handy vehicle for commenting on consumerist culture and brand-name iconicity. Bedecked with a monocle, walking stick and top hat, Mr. Peanut hails from the era of industrial capitalism,[2] or, more properly, from an American imagination that casts the successful tycoon as its ideal.[3] Clark is constantly dressing Mr. Peanut up and giving him new roles: he becomes a portrait subject, a right-hand man to Mao and Chavez, or "Afro-Nut," Mr. Peanut's black cousin. In the Who Would Jesus Bomb? series (2004-2008), he stands below the emblazoned question, his smile and jaunty stance reminiscent of a televangelist or perhaps a profiteering promoter of the military-industrial gospel. He even begins to look like a devilish version of the top-hatted Uncle Sam, cheerily calculating our best bet for war-mongering. Mr. Peanut was actually used to sell war saving stamps in World War II.[4] Clark notes biting ironies and unexpected consonances in each work, but the overall impression is of a feverish and wacky meaninglessness, an icon devoid of any inherent value. As the consummate "shell," Mr. Peanut captures the emptiness of consumer culture, both the absurdity of the commodity as fetish and the unreal, spectacular language of advertising that promotes it.

If the husk-like Mr. Peanut levels a critique of society along the lines of Guy Debord and the Situationists, he also engages in a quieter but nonetheless potent celebration of a more personal visual vocabulary. In Clark's paintings, the soul is in the brushwork. The real animation lies in the colors, the gestures, the build-up of multiple styles and manners, or (in the wooden sculptures) the accretion and arrangement of collage elements. For all the emptiness at the core of his subjects-exposed as commodities, murderers and blank ciphers-there is a teeming activity at their surfaces. Clark builds up the backgrounds and the rendering of Mr. Peanut himself with a diversity of handling, from the messily abstract to the rigidly checkered, from pure golden sheens to intense, deep reds. Each Peanut portrait seems imbued with a distinct aesthetic liveliness: in some, textural modeling clay is applied to the backgrounds; in others, wooden collage elements are attached. Clark himself has explained Mr. Peanut as a fetish object, and indeed there is something about the hyper-attentiveness to the garb and guise of these icons that marks them with an animating force. Clark's visit to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris in 1970, where he was especially struck by African fetish sculptures, was a precipitating factor in his development of Mr. Peanut. We can see an analogy between the accrual of metals, nails and objects in religious figures like Kongo power sculptures and Clark's layering of materials and gestures in his own paintings. Both insidiously consumerist and aesthetically powerful, Mr. Peanut elicits, like all fetish objects, a very ambivalent response. Even while attentively crafting new portraits of him, Clark admits, "in a way, I hate him."

The spiritual underlies much of Clark's work, even as he takes up the language of pop culture. His shrines-wooden diorama-like boxes made in the late 1970s and early 1980s-compile often highly personal symbols into "pictograms" of specific moments in Clark's life, their interiors holding small statues and ephemera. Through the shrines in particular, Clark creates stopping points for his viewers, small pauses amidst the onslaught of modern visual clutter. These works also display Clark's penchant for riddles and enigmas, even obtuseness. His 1981 Chairman Mao 1954 Shrine (1981 [Restored 2006]), for example, contains dates, quotes, and astrological signs that hold import really for Clark alone. A similar pause occurs in the subtle shifts and changes Clark makes when adapting his icons, flipping the image, for example, or disguising his painting method as silkscreen. Clark's works ask you to peer at their surfaces and puzzle over their content. Yet ultimately it is precisely there, in the surfaces, that their value lies. His witty redeployments of the image may speak to us more immediately, but the slower and more long-lasting meaning, the "new" value, is created in his tactile, worrying attention to the shells and facades. This is a radically circumscribed area of discourse, to be sure, but against the global profusion of visual images and the political might harnessed behind them, it is no small triumph.

This essay was originally published in December 2008.

The writer, Emily Warner, received her BA in art history at the University of Chicago. She has worked in the past at such museums as The Art Institute of Chicago and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Newcity Chicago and Proximity Magazine. She currently lives in Hoboken, N.J. and works in New York City.

The mentor, Raphael Rubinstein, is a New York-based poet and critic whose books include Polychrome Profusion: Selected Art Criticism 1990-2002 (Hard Press Editions, 2003) and The Afterglow of Minor Pop Masterpieces (Make Now, 2007). He is professor of critical studies at the University of Houston and is also on the faculty of the art criticism and writing MFA Program at the School of Visual Arts, New York.

[1] The death of the 38 rebel leaders constituted one of the largest mass executions in American history, and was used as a reason to abrogate all former treaties with the tribe. Barry M. Pritzker, A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000], 317.

[2] Clark notes, for example, that the top hat is "a very class thing...to signify your rank."

[3] Planters Peanuts was founded in 1906 by Italian immigrant Amadeo Obici. The Mr. Peanut figure was first developed in 1916. Planters Historic Timeline, 1906-Present, www.planters.com/history.aspx, accessed December 2008. For more information on the evolution of the Mr. Peanut figure, see Jan Lindenberger and Joyce Spontak, Planters Peanut Collectibles, 1906-1961: A Handbook and Price Guide (Atglen, Pa: Schiffer Publishing, 1999).

[4] Planters Historic Timeline, 1906-Present.