Even though Pop to Present, on display now through August 16, 2009 at the Cantor Arts Center, is billed as a survey of the Stanford museum's recent acquisitions of post-Eisenhower-era art, the show is really a stealth homage to Robert Arneson. Arneson is represented by only four pieces, but the strategic placement of his three sculptures and single drawing serves him and the exhibition well.
The fun begins before you enter the main gallery. There, outside the door to the Cantor's first-floor auditorium, you'll find one of Arneson's most unsparing ceramic busts, Assassination of a Famous Nut Artist, 1971. As with many of Arneson's sculptures, the head of this one is of Arneson himself. With undisguised glee, he depicts himself being stabbed in the shoulder with a Bowie knife and shot by an arrow in the chest. Hovering above the artist's balding head is a handgun. The gun's trigger has apparently just been pulled, so that we may enjoy the precise moment when you can see both the artist's brains being blown to bits and the Looney Tunes smoke ring that envelops the gun's muzzle.
There are so many things to love about this grimly hilarious work, but the Cantor's installation wants us to do more than spend time drinking in Arneson's grisly, comedic details. No sooner has our eye taken in Nut Artist than it is drawn to a painting nearby called A Family Portrait. Painted by Joan Brown in 1971, this enamel-on-masonite vertical rectangle shows a panda bear in a red, dandyish bowtie standing before a wall papered in repeated images of a large golden koi. At the panda's feet is a real fish laying inert on a green and pink checkerboard floor. And next to the panda is a cat or cougar-like being (one human hand betrays the creature's mixed species) in a white fur coat holding a purse. Mom and dad, with their improbable spawn on the floor? Whatever the relationship between the characters in this curious work, it is a form of portraiture that would never be confused with Arneson's. His portrait is aggressive in its content and three-dimensionality. Brown's painting is deliberately flat, from the expressions on her subjects' faces to the way they are rendered as mere cutouts, one laid atop the other in a cursory nod to space and depth.
Entering the show's main gallery, we are greeted again by an Arneson. This time it's a mixed media drawing from 1985 titled Colonel Hyena. During the Reagan administration, which many people today regard with pathologically sentimental fondness, Arneson was ripping Ronny's war machine a new one. In the case of the good colonel, he's a bad-acid-trip, Kubrickian nightmare. His blood-red aviator glasses rest atop a phallic missile nose, below which is a demonic zombie-clown leer. Being a hyena, he's laughing at the little people, we suppose, whose lives mean less than nothing to a monster like him. He eats people like us for breakfast.
Directly to the left of Colonel Hyena is Douglas McDougall's similarly in-your-face portrait called Another Drink to Cold Women from his CitizenScapes series. It is, according to a statement on the wall, a picture of a guy from the artist's neighborhood named Theo, whom McDougall has been capturing in charcoal on paper for a number of years now. Theo is one of those people who have been trampled by life, and his face, lovingly rendered by McDougall, appears subtly out of focus, what we imagine the world looks like to Theo. It is a terrific drawing of fleshy downtrodden humanity, made all the more poignant when paired with Arneson's expressive commentary on uniformed inhumanity.
The exhibition continues with a number of unremarkable pieces by Richard Avedon, Anthony Caro, Al Held, Richard Long and Dennis Oppenheim, whose collective insignificance is amply offset by a remarkable Elmer Bischoff from 1969. And then we come upon a gallery mostly devoted to six prints by Roy Lichtenstein. The opposing walls of the gallery have been painted in Benday dots and stripes, each motif lifted from a detail in one of Lichtenstein's prints. It sounds corny but it's kind of cool. The far wall is the most powerful, filled with four large prints from 1990. To the left is an empty blue chair beside a lamp. In the middle is a living room with a Warhol Mao print on the wall (this being a Lichtenstein, it lacks Warhol's delirious sense of color). Then there's a den scene, followed by a print of a couch on a blue floor, both of which are reflected in floor-to-ceiling mirrors.
It's all so very beautiful and bland, and then we notice that the primary-color prints have been paired with another Arneson. This time we get an early piece from 1964 titled His and Hers. This surreal pair of stoneware toilets must have been scandalous at the time, but here in the Cantor, with little kids giggling at the breasts behind the woman's toilet and the turds scattered around the base of the men's, the sculpture is a rough-hewn reality check to Lichtenstein's antiseptic aesthetic. Both artists benefit from the proximity.
Around the corner, in the gallery hallway leading to other corners of the museum, we find the final Arneson, another anti-war, anti-imperialism piece from the Reagan era positioned near a lifesize Manuel Neri figure. With the words War Memorial stamped onto its base and a black globe beneath a deformed and beaten head, the Arneson pulls no punches, trading the artist's light touch for a nasty far-right hook. The Neri, by comparison, looks like a piece of sculpture in a museum, a classical, ultimately academic rumination on the figure and the human form. Neri does a fine job of producing objects that fit neatly into that hallowed continuum known as art history. Arneson preferred to make it.
Pop to Present runs through August 16, 2009 at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. For more information, visit museum.stanford.edu.