When people endeavor to frame the present in the context of art history, the artist they most frequently turn to is Andy Warhol. By those measures Warhol is a perfect reference point, the provocations of his work—the blurring of the personal and the publicized, the sped-up 15 minutes of going viral—only grow stronger every day the word "Fyre" is trending.
But there is one crucial aspect of his work that feels sadly incongruous in this moment. His mass-produced paintings weren't shorthand for "throwaway"—they were imbued with a talismanic power that made a sickly son of immigrants feel American. As the writer Olivia Laing says of his work, "One dollar bill is not more attractive than another; drinking Coke puts the coal miner among the company of presidents and movie stars."
Laws of Motion at Gagosian San Francisco mourns this Warholian idyll while dressing down the advertised fantasies that they sprang from. The show takes its title from Karl Marx’s Capitalist mode of production, but leaves its copy of Das Kapital firmly at the door. Rather than wrestle with theory, Laws grounds itself in a metaphor that is rich enough to be philosophical without sacrificing its humanity: probing what is throwaway with what is actually thrown away.
It is a fantastic show, but only if you can divorce its picture from its frame (more on that later).
As the exhibition notes mention, a number of the artists featured in Laws first came to prominence by taking on the aesthetics of advertising and imbuing them with meaning. But for one glaring exception at the end, the offerings on display aren’t sleek or seductive in the least.
Consider Josh Kline's Handled with Care, which resembles a pile of rubble stacked in the middle of the gallery. As you approach, the mess begins to morph into familiar shapes—a leaf-blower, a lawn-mower, a hand-saw—work implements that have outlasted their usefulness and fossilized into something brittle and sad.
A similar feeling of dispossession lurks in the corners of Rosemarie Trockel’s work. Mounting burner plates atop enamel and a stone slab, Trockel divorces them from any kind of purpose. A plaster bald eagle head lying limply beside the circular plates speaks to a sorry state of American domesticity. And not to be outdone, Kline’s Comfort Food throws everything (including the kitchen sink) into a pile of housewares that would leave Marie Kondo screaming.
Kline is without a doubt the star of the exhibition, but for all of his thoughtful messes, his showstopping work is a bid to put things together again. Resentment, Alternative Facts, Make-Believe and Lies are conceptually rich, half-assed attempts at reconciling this country’s obscene inequality. Taping one half of a cheap product to its luxury counterpart with American flag-patterned tape, Kline makes a funny and trenchant statement about the dysfunctional shape of our nation. In a master stroke, he soundtracks the gallery with the rhythmless chug of motors fumbling to work.
Kline’s spiritual godmother is Cady Noland, whose furious readymades deconstruct American myths for all of their hot air and cruelty. Noland is represented by two pieces in Laws; her work is a prime fit for a show about an America bursting at the seams. In Clip-On Man, a personal favorite, a screen-print on white aluminum shows a haggard-looking man with a near-empty six-pack dangling from his belt. The print extends from the wall into a grid of aluminum framework punctuated by two rings—a whole architecture jutting out with nothing for him to hang on it.
Elsewhere, Jeff Wall’s photographs depict people navigating through rural wastelands—siphoning gas, scrapping junk and digging bunkers beyond the scrutiny of urban elites. And Anicka Yi offers the sole misstep in the show; her mold and bacteria-wielding work feels too mannered and artful to compete with the raw energy of Noland, Kline and Wall.
Then there’s Jeff Koons. Koons, the ultimate purveyor of kitsch and one of the richest artists in the world, is given the final word in Laws. His 1980 piece, New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers is illuminated in beatific light, all spectacle with virtually no real-world value. It's probably worth millions.
But Koons’ inclusion becomes less savory and the show’s mission less clear when you’re reminded that this is a Gagosian exhibition. There is no artist nor gallery as synonymous with an art market warped by vast infusions of questionable capital as either Koons or Gagosian are. Both have acted in badfaith to sustain themselves. And both have benefited from systems that Laws seemingly critiques.
For a show so concerned with lost meaning, Gagosian never once considers its own weight in the equation. Depending on the viewer, that's enough to make the curatorial vision collapse.
'Laws of Motion' is on view at Gagosian San Francisco through March 9, 2019. Details here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.