Camille Rose Garcia: Tragic Kingdom
As a fan of Camille Rose Garcia, I was ready to simply bask in the beautiful gloom of her strange world. I've seen a good amount of her work before and never once gleaned a specific context for her lovely doom beyond the obvious visual references to old cartoons and hipster fashion. Garcia weaves so much intricacy into her paintings that I have never craved a specific meaning, delighting in the vagueness of her surreal dreamscapes, twisted creatures and, well, masterfully pretty pictures.
But Tragic Kingdom: The Art of Camille Rose Garcia at the San Jose Museum of Art reveals that there is a lot more behind Garcia's work, or at least that she fervently intends there to be. As narrated by the artist, nearly all of the pieces began with Garcia stumbling across some horrific current event -- the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina -- and using it to spin elaborate doomsday scenarios inspired by our "collective destructive death spiral."
The series Retreat Syndrome, titled from the Philip K. Dick story, laments the environment of fear after September 11th, and scorns how "everyone" hid in denial, smugly characterized by "anti-depressants and 500 thread-count sheets." The complex and dire imagery of suicidal, vomiting princesses in the Ultraviolenceland series, named from A Clockwork Orange, is chalked up to Garcia's being "tired of the general state of things in America." The Soft Machine references William S. Burroughs' criticism of political complacency, and paints capitalism as a kind of enabling and sinister pet/master -- "the evil empire using more subversive tactics to enslave people." There's even the predictable scenario of ignorant consumers blindly gorging themselves on a yummy new sweet that -- surprise! -- is actually made of dissidents executed by the government, their remains given to a sinister tycoon, Mr. Peppermint, to turn a profit.
One series, Doomcave Daydreams, features bright purple butterflies meant to "search for beauty and hope in a doomed world," but against what Garcia calls "a sea of extinctual doom," these images don't feel like a relief. Each description took the same exaggerated, end-of-the-world (literally) tone, making it difficult to take Garcia's moral outrage du jour seriously (especially when the topics change -- war, capitalism, environmental damage, the pharmaceutical industry, inhumane farming practices -- but the imagery and the artist's strident pitch remain the same from painting to painting). Evil duck creatures tote dark bottles of poison. Leering goblins menace in stripey suits. Dripping black poison threatens elegant swans, fawns, and pretty girls in retro clothes. Day-glo sea creatures languish in toxic waters. Blood smears canvases and animals. I get it; things are bad.
I found the show's tone of resigned epic tragedy exhausting. The lack of nuance feels like a distracting flaw in Garcia's work. Rather than encouraging discussion, Garcia seems to luxuriate in the maudlin hopelessness of it all. This kind of static portrait of corruption adds up to fear mongering or, worse yet, hints of forfeit on the side of the counterculture -- if the world is rotten and doomed, why try and save it?
There is also a grating sense of self righteousness to the exhibition. Garcia grew up in suburban Los Angeles, right in the happy, happy, oh so happy shadow of Disneyland, and its philosophy that good is defined by the absence of bad (or literally, the absence of garbage, delivery trucks, or any breaks in "magic," a.k.a. reality) -- a way of dealing with bumps in the road by not tolerating their existence. I couldn't help but think that this culture is partly responsible for Garcia's indignation as someone who once, perhaps, bought into that happiness myth.
In reality, good and terrible things exist side by side, and the perception of which is "winning" is often based on the sheer will to see it one way or the other. Garcia's insistent pessimism ends up feeling as brittle and precious as the fairytale optimism she rebels against.
There's a place for emotional calls to arms, and a kind of punk rock rattling of cages to jar people out of complacency. But Garcia makes no mention of the reality of her topics beyond that they are terrible, which just seems like a shallow response to something as complex as entire economic systems (like what would she prefer?) or the Iraq War. And using politics to manipulate emotions seems suspect to me, in general. She should give her audience more credit for being informed enough to want more to chew on than blanket pronouncements about complex issues and references to writers as firmly established in the counterculture as the "Happy Meal" is in the mainstream.
I have great respect for Garcia's artistry, and the enormous energy she has put into developing such a distinct style. Her work is breathtaking to see in person. I can't think of a recent show that visually excited me more. Garcia makes expert use of pleasing My Little Pony colors to render her "darkness" as unbelievably cute. Her elegant, sad-eyed cartoon humans and animals languish over layers of lush colors and patterns. Each fantasy scene of subterranean escape or violent chaos feels visually complete. Even the tears her characters shed are delicately designed cascades of drops and arcs.
It's disappointing to find out that the impetus for these works isn't nearly as skillful as the work itself. I'm not quite sure what we can reasonably expect from our artists, who have to juggle making something meaningful AND aesthetically stimulating. Does beautiful work have to be meaningful? No. Does meaningful work have to be beautiful? No. But when art sets out to tackle difficult issues -- with a clear desire to instigate -- it should attempt to be as thoughtful as its subjects are complex.
Tragic Kingdom: The Art of Camille Rose Garcia runs through September 23rd at the San Jose Museum of Art.
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