Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Exemplary Diving

  In a way it doesn't matter if you missed the Whitney Museum's recent Paul Thek retrospective, the dead hippie wasn't there either. Not that it wasn't worth seeing (it was), it's just that the transient and exemplary theme of the artist's work has never really found a place, or wanted it, in the traditional sense of the museum object. The Tomb, better known as "the dead hippie" and perhaps his masterpiece, was abandoned by the maker himself.
  Mortality was a theme of Thek's and the visitor was first greeted by the ghost of the late artist himself in the form of a giant Warhol screen test head. Art history's 60's icon introduces us to history's forgotten underbelly of what it must have been like to actually have been there. It is another collaboration by these two artists that really sets Thek apart from how most textbooks remember the era. Encased in one of the famous fake Brillo boxes tipped on it's side is one of Thek's signature wax meat slabs complete with airhole. This signifies his break from and disdain for the cube that was minimalism's last try at encasing modernist history. Minimalism feared the choices that the end of art's linear trajectory offered and it clung to it's monotheism until the very end. It wasn't just a joke, turning a Judd or Bell cube in to a meat freezer, but a surgical exposure of the flesh that probably better suited the turmoil of the day - more Altamont than White Album.
  The first space of the show, with it's wax meat and cast body parts, makes tombstones of the art object. This gallery preceded a slide show about The Tomb, abandoned when Thek didn't bother picking it up from it's  European exhibition. Essentially a self sepulture, Tomb placed a cast self-portrait in a small ziggurat - an Egyptian burial complete with severed fingers (needed tools of the artist) packaged to follow the spirit to the afterlife. In the context of this show, "dead hippie" becomes a ghost that has risen from the first gallery. Emergence from the grave is already apparent with body parts rising from the first room to another state of meaning. A mouth gasps it's first breath of the afterlife and fingers reach upward, psychedelically colored with the appearance of moisture on cracked mud. 
Not a drawing by Paul Thek
  From here on the show follows Thek's continuing practice in to obscurity with a couple of appearances by his "Gandolf the White" tourguide through the underworld, Diver. Not called "Lander" for a reason, Thek's rubber fish zombie is a buoyed marker through increasingly disposable and suggestive works. Re-and-repurposed found objects (Thek was infamous for reworking older pieces) clutter spaces with flotsam and jetsam madman junkyards. Newspaper paintings line walls around garage-find dioramas. The show ends with Thek's (literal this time) death bed show of low hung paintings with pre-school chairs provided for viewing by children. The next generation is now his audience for art that will be made immortal not for existing, but for the thought it tries to inspire. 

Old fan Mike Kelley on Paul Thek  

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