With the Art Institute of Chicago opening the most extensive retrospective of painter, sculptor, and printmaker Roy Lichtenstein this very week, we couldn’t have asked for a better segue into the world of a contemporary counterpart, Ray “CRO” Noland. The à propo opening of Sex, Spraypaint & Satire: Parody Without Humor at the Grand Bizzare in Wicker Park, displays the starkly cynical and sharply politicized perspectives of a ubiquitous artist, most noted for his Obama-supporting and Blago-slanging street stencils. While debating the ephemeral appeal of CRO’s work against the cajoling effect of his humor, it may be difficult to discern the contrary motifs at play in his message. His concise and crisp imagery plays against the a-political contours of Pop art, mainstream misgivings and the defunct, political world we must endure while simultaneously embodying, and thus, one can only hope, criticizing the very modes and methods, expectations and limitations of production, and the very institutionalizations of the art world.
Art school criticism and references aside, CRO’s works evoke mixed(media) emotions. While some may feel the timely intentions beating them over the head with snippy snippets of distilled, political frustration, those not overwhelmed by the dated “Secret Service” and “Occupy” references might find solace in the more avant-abstractions of the pristine installations through art-products, pitched with consciously commodifiable, ill-mannered marketability. Since CRO is a printmaker, sculptor, designer and street artist, the most potent of the pieces in Sex, Spraypaint & Satire, to me, were those large-scale stencils, and those “experimental products” which incorporated the spray-can as a degenerated, posh-art object. Sex, Spraypaint & Satire strikes a match against the pretext of an existing banal-U.S. privilege while circulating the cult of the art objects as intended: producing commercially, aesthetically and intellectually viable commodities.
“Street Cred,” something that the graffiti artist and most urban-born ruffians know, inherent to their lifestyles and liveliness, serves as a tool and a crutch. CRO contradicts and compounds, conflates and corrodes this conceptual battle ground of and for authenticity, identity, race and politics (or political gangsterdom) in an unsettling way. He posits, if I’m to read his work correctly, that there is essentially no escape. CRO says your hoodie does in fact make you look Black, and perhaps then you shouldn’t wear one at all, because, if all it takes is putting one on Oprah, for a safe and very, un-black art crowd to appreciate and purchase his art, sustaining the racialized and arcane U.S. American art economy, then, perhaps we are all in fact doomed. The melodrama and inherent absurdity, the ridiculous, almost soap operatic nature of society, its dissonant qualms and all its pathetic follies fall to the wayside. The mob-bosses of high-art will buy the best and the worst of Noland’s very the-personal-is-only-as-political-as-you-let-it, as-long-as-you-don’t-let-it-get-to-you thought provoking art, regardless of the petty, and profitable prettiness of the work.
Corrosion is the optimal word here, though counter-intuitive to the very precisely box-cut, and meticulously detailed, glossy finish of CRO’s show. The corrosive property of spray paint comes to mind. Viewers may be left wondering where the gallery ended and where the work began, where CRO’s conceptualizations and assertions start and where the obscenity of the gallery as a cultural capitalist’s propellant vear ambiguously. Politics may be an easy means for an artist to pontificate success, extrapolating from Pop-art abstractions and AbEx-ad exec savvy fads, but I would hope and I might argue that CRO’s sculptures redeem and reveal his latent avant leanings. Whereas the platitudes and quaint, pithy retorts of his notorious screen prints, street art, and paintings engage an easily commodity-preferring collector, his sculptures and large-scale stencils take on the conceptual, modern, instillation oriented sectors of a cookie cutter consumer art industry with sufficiently snide action and appropriately lighthearted dissidence.
In a very un-gallery-esque, more street sale move, prints of Noland’s best were also up for sale at the opening. Stencil, graffiti, and paint are vastly expounded upon through CRO’s very product driven, congealed and often, overly manicured presentation. But, I suppose that’s the point? The queerness of the pinks and blues throughout arouse hope despite the bleak outlook and dismal discourse. The lesser utilized components of his art, though nonetheless marvelously explored elements of sculpture, and finely fetishized objects, stimulated and stipulated a very clean and concise approach to documenting, distilling and dissecting culture. CRO’s tongue and cheek-biting aesthetic works well with his cake-batter palette and the very soft and prisma-primed tones of his work, aptly juxtaposed to the overlying and overt dialogue.
If I were to infer anything from the show, from the ridiculously affordable prices of the pieces and the layout of the gallery as a whole, I’d have to say we’re dealing with a space and a person, a curator and an artist, who have at the forefront of their thoughts, the design integrity, spread and atmosphere of their presentation just as equally prevalent in their thoughts as the function, or impact of the single roomed Grand Bizzare. That is to say, CRO’s image branding design work was definitely not wasted here. Whereas some artists might shun or hide their digital day jobs in all the misguided desire to apply their “non-traditional” and “untrained” art-trend sexiness, CRO is unafraid to show off his polished intellectualism. His refined and mastered wit goes duly noted. But, nothing sums it up better than Noland’s very own mission statement: “My work is simply about visually documenting and recording pop, social and political issues of my time. I embrace the hand of the artist and technology.”