Artists Re-create, Subvert American Pop Culture

John Thomason

To reference an idiom often attributed to Sigmund Freud, sometimes a hot dog is just a hot dog. Other times, it’s much more, as in the two fine-art hot dogs displayed (one of them under glass) in the Boca Museum of Art’s rollicking new show “Pop Culture: Selections From the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation.” Jean Wells’ “Hot Dog” mosaic is made from shards of cut glass, the colors of gold and ruby, fashioned into a frankfurter fit for a queen. Betty Spindler’s “Pink Hot Dog” is no less haute, a foodstuff of questionable edibility elevated to a ludicrously ornamental ceramic artifact.
These artists intend to draw attention to the objects that drive our shallow consumerist economy, satirizing them through an ironic sort of glorification: If it’s what people want, we’ll rub their faces in it. One person’s chintzy diet is another artist’s pointed subject matter.
This was always a rebellious undercurrent of the Pop Art movement, which thrived in the 1960s, in part, as a reaction to the perceived pretentions of abstract expressionism. Rather than conceal their messages in frenetic splatters of paint or monochromatic slates, Pop artists made the act of representation their very subject—a comic book panel or a Campbell’s Soup can, freed from their original marketplace shackles and exalted as museum-quality art. Modifications to these objects needn’t necessarily be made: The pieces made their points about American values simply by existing.

Some of these artists’ names and their key works have become just as ubiquitous as their subject matter, and many of them—Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Haring—are duly represented in “Pop Culture,” a comprehensive and personally curated survey of Pop Art from its American genesis through to the present day, where it has become a global phenomenon. And while it’s always great to see these familiar masters on museum walls, I was most taken with the artists still carrying the Pop torch decades after its fashionability declined.
Some, like Greg Miller and his “7-Up” collage, seem like direct descendants of the original Pop Artists, creating work that hearkens less to 2014 than to 1964. But others seem more forthright in their subversion: Andrew Lewicki’s “Oreo Manhole Cover,” positioned on the floor, playfully points out the aesthetic similarities between the sandwich cookie design and street manhole covers, while subtly suggesting that the unhealthy snacks belong in our sewage system, not our bellies. Likewise, Blake Boyd’s “Super Girl 2” reinterprets the image of the buxom comic-book superhero for a post-feminist America. And speaking of gender, wait until you see how the artist LA II reflects on biker machismo with his fluorescent, hot-pink motorcycle.
In other places, American pop culture invades the art of other nations, mirroring the rise of globalization. In Dong-hyun Son’s “Two Birds,” Daffy Duck appears on what looks to be an ancient Korean scroll, and in a pair of superb works by Masami Teraoka—one a silkscreen, the other a watercolor—McDonalds and Baskin Robbins infects the muted beauty of traditional Asian art, a pair of chopsticks sitting ridiculously next to a cheeseburger.
Elsewhere, we get biting commentary on such subjects as corporate uniformity—Michael Speaker’s stunning wood sculpture “Team Xerox” depicts a man sticking his head in a copy machine, with identical wooden heads resting on its trays—and the ultimate Pop distraction, television: The robotic concoction in Nam June Paik’s “Michelin Man Laser Robot” is festooned with a handful of TV screens, which are transfixing despite the fact that they’re only broadcasting the same abstract transmission. Yet we can’t stop looking.
But look onward. This is the kind of exhibition that rewards the sustained gaze, and sometimes double takes are required. Some of the best pieces in “Pop Culture” trick the eye, suggesting one thing while actually being another. Wayne White’s “Cornmeal Sweat Gasoline Pork Grease Burlap Motor Oil” (pictured above) is a bronze “word sculpture” that looks remarkably like a cardboard construction, a pair of brown packing boxes from which the titular words spring from the top, as in a pop-up book. Keung Szeto’s “Art Work” painting simulates a corkboard so vividly you’ll want to try and remove one of its thumbtacks. And Richard Sigmund’s “Stop” uses splattered acrylic to create a large-scale replica of a concrete street.
An exhibition like this can seem overwhelming; it takes up three rooms in the museum and covers so much territory and so many artists that it can feel like several exhibitions crammed into one—a testament to the eclectic nature of Weisman’s collection.
Luckily, the Boca Museum’s curatorial team did a bang-up job of presenting these works with thematic cohesion. Roughly speaking, urban visions give way to comic book revisionism, words and language, food, sexuality, the human anatomy, and finally fashion. If that’s not all of human experience, it’s certainly a good chunk of it contained in one sprawling show.
I’d like to close by going back to the food art, because it’s the most impactful portion of the show. The modern-day apotheosis of Pop Art may be Pamela Michelle Johnson’s “American Still Life” series of giant paintings of piles upon piles of junk food. Three of them—Pop-Tarts, Hostess cupcakes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—are presented here, and under Johnson’s brush, this in-your-face comfort food looks utterly disgusting. If nothing else, this exhibition will surely make you rethink a Twinkie for an apple next time you’re in Publix.

"Pop Culture" is at the Boca Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, through April 23. Tickets cost $6 to $14. For information, call 561/392-2500 or visit