New York

Steve Gianakos

Droll Kolbert Gallery

Steve Gianakos has been for some time a master of the cosy, unruly materials which comprise his encyclopedic mischiefs of Americana—shabby, homespun curio items of cardboard and foil. Recently, the fabricated objects, which are in a sense cartoons of their own clumsy object-hood, have given way to straightforward two-dimensional cartoons.

Cartoons are a good medium for artists titillated by the more vernacular mechanisms of communication. The cartoons of Neil Jenny, William Wegman, and Gianakos underscore one of the peculiarities of ’70s art: the decadence of represented imagery and the simultaneous resurrection of that imagery. Jenny’s large canvases find the drawing painted and expensive; Wegman’s high intellectual content and the “I don’t know how to draw” style (of the jaded sophisticate) are far from the best middle-brow cartoons printed. Gianakos does the opposite of Jenny by drawing the painting, and the opposite of Wegman by using a much more mundane drawing style (coloring-book outlines) done with higher craftsmanship and dumb content.

Pig-Pong, a large, five-panel piece, takes up the entire length of one wall with a cinematic (or rather, storyboardlike) procession of two pigs, volleying from serve to fault. It’s painful. It hurts the smart bourgeois’ reverence for art to be so “outdumbed” by it.

Gianakos’s poker-faced attitude is heir both to Duchamp’s “This Is Art” and Magritte’s “This is not a pipe.” Dumbfounded, we plow through more of his bad-joke captions and their grand-style illustrations. The scale difference between the import of the silly, verbal non-puns and the elegant form and execution of the work is mind-boggling. The work’s humor depends on a type of teasing s/m that relies merely on the lifted pinkie as an instrument of punishment. There is also “dirt” in the imagery itself. Mexican Blow Job, Hand Job, Repos, and Whole in One are all coyly homosexual and bestial in theme, and filthily heterosexual in devotion.

The piece which distinguishes itself as most fit to print in Artforum (by transferring most of its perversities into class consciousness) is The Boss’s Wife. It’s a narrative developed on a single panel, within the framework of a limousine in which chauffeur, boss’s wife, and dog swap roles and activities, with the dog ending up in the driver’s seat. The event depicted is a cross-class screwing, the great redeeming value of which we can all appreciate, regardless of where our sympathies lie.

Elsewhere, in a large color picture called Freak Out, two creatures who couldn’t have come from worlds farther apart encounter each other face to face. The psychological momentum is all there, as well as the ease of Gianakos’ sweeping line and lovely industrial coloration. The main highlight, however, is in a detail, a tiny episode which, for me at least, stole the show. In Peppermint Stick, Little Girl? the fancied-up stick-figure protagonists do just what you might think, except that the girl kicks the man in the shin. He in turn taps his cigarette ashes onto the little brat’s head. They fall like a coughing volcano; it’s a most picturesque encapsulation of stupifying meanness.

Cartoons are a commercial medium which thrives on a libertine attitude; they can be extreme in content and still get printed because of their distance from realism; in fact, that is their point. Gianakos steps into this contextual issue with gusto. It’s a perverse set-up the artist devised in order to trap himself.

—Edit DeAk