PRINT May 1999


A STRANGELY PERSONALIZED PANOPLY of graphic riffs on the latest and greatest in fashion, advertising, movies, other artists, and most important, music, Michael Bevilacqua’s painting amounts to a virtual psychedelic assault of consumer culture. His references run the gamut from band and designer logos to patterns on the plastic wrapping of Scott paper towels and Chinese characters cribbed from a chopstick envelope. At first, the whole affair seems merely superficial, a hipster’s unabashed endorsement of all things cool. You almost involuntarily measure your own cultural inventory against Bevilacqua’s: MC Solaar—check. Kraftwerk and Air—total check. The Avengers—never saw it. Marilyn Manson—what’s he doing here? But a closer look shows that while Bevilacqua’s paintings may seem like an ultra-cynical surrender to consumerism, they register remarkably low on the irony meter.

Of course, with their hard-edged graphics and candy-wrapper colors, Bevilacqua’s work follows in the Pop tradition of Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Ashley Bickerton’s early ’80s “self-portraits” made of product logos, but what animates the paintings is a deep-seated adolescent spirit. They have all the energy of an obsessed fan pledging allegiance to his favorite stuff, then altering and subverting it for more personal ends. Like logos, the paintings are distillations of something more complex—the artist himself.

In a way, Bevilacqua’s painting practice is an elaborate outgrowth of classroom doodling. The racing stripes and hot-rod flames (along with the punk references) stem from his small-town California childhood in the ’70s and ’80s, much of which was spent with a friend’s family that raced cars—he was smitten with the vivid graphics and piling up of product stickers on auto bodies. There’s also a correlation between his work and the mishmashes of commercial imagery that teens plaster on their bedroom walls. But unlike those constantly mutating adolescent collages, Bevilacqua’s paintings—created with painstaking precision—are self-conscious diaristic markers. At thirty-two, he seems to revel in (and call attention to) that late-twentieth-century phenomenon: “extended adolescence.” He hangs onto youth through pop culture, while reconciling teen passions with marriage, children—the range of adult pleasures and demands. And so a personal iconography, even a narrative, seeps through his disjointed, shifting, overlapping, and recurring images.

Ça va pas, la tête? (What’s wrong with my head?), 1998, was made while Bevilacqua was in the throes of finishing up his solo show last winter: The silhouetted figure framed by garish rays is Bevilacqua’s artistic alter ego (lifted from Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 7), his head blasted by a logo for Bullit (a favorite movie at the time) shot from a bubble gun (modeled after a toy belonging to his son). Trees from some ’70s-era fabric you might find in, say, a California motel evoke the artist’s dream of bucolic bliss, and are countered by the logo for La Haine, the gritty French movie about the struggles of kids in an urban housing project. Bevilacqua’s nerve-racking self-portrait is surrounded by a calming blue-sky backdrop from a toy package, as if to emphasize that the portrait is merely a snapshot of a particular time, set within the larger picture of connubial contentment. His wife appears here—perched beside floating, John Wesley-like images—and throughout Bevilacqua’s work as a schematized portrayal of Bjork from her Homogenic album. (In other paintings, the couple is represented by what Bevilacqua calls “cartoon versions” of his symbols of choice.) In fact, Ça va pas, la tête may also refer, with a mixture of joy and alarm, to the news of his wife’s second pregnancy.

Of late, Bevilacqua’s coded narratives on his domestic and personal life seem to be taking on a deeper sexual and psychological charge. In Teen Spirit, 1999, his virile alter ego is embellished rather startlingly with butterfly (decorated with interlaced Gucci G’s) and hot-rod tattoos, and he sports a penis (modeled on an Ettore Sottsass vase), literally popping out of his leopard-print pants. At the same time, the figure protectively displays an image of Marilyn Manson from the cover of his Mechanical Animals album—a creature that, like those in Matthew Barney’s works, is characterized by a bizarre, quasi-animalistic androgyny. But Manson looks more like a paper doll here, decked out in clown makeup and silly sunglasses—it’s as if the adult Bevilacqua is checking in with his adolescent self. Teen exuberance is ripening into teen angst, as the pockets of density in his earlier work spread into more freestyle, allover compositions.

This newer mode seems resonant with the explosion in graphic arts and the ever-growing visual intensity of our entertainment-based culture. However, Bevilacqua has no interest in using a computer to amplify the barrage of visual information he absorbs and processes. Instead, there’s an almost monkish devotional quality to his tracing-and-taping technique, borrowed from race-car painters, which creates a “sticker effect” that he takes to maddeningly intricate extremes. Indeed, Bevilacqua’s loyalty to such a slow, labor-intensive practice in the face of the deluge of pop culture seems to be integral to his process—allowing him to ferment the commercial with the personal to produce these intimate, cosmopolitan fantasias.

Julie Caniglia is a writer living in New York.