New York

Justen Ladda

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Justen Ladda treats art at its lowest, where it merges seamlessly with kitsch. His is a raunchy, rollicking temperament that delights in mining the depths of popular consciousness, and in art, fashion and religion, 1986, he explored the impact of consumerism.

Ladda’s installation was designed according to two different spatial arrangements, with a mazelike rectilinear corridor giving onto a circular stage. Both walls of the corridor were painted with a Greek fret design, punctuated at regular intervals with clusters of grapes, and the perambulating viewer quickly noted that several grapes at a time had been removed (or eaten) from successive clusters, leaving as the final image the skeletal “tree.” The symbolism of the grapes’ “consumption” is obvious, and Ladda repeated the theme in the circular, pillar-ringed space through the large grape cluster painted prominently on the wall. Here the artist concocted a complex collage in which four models, modishly dressed in the most current Yves Saint-Laurent outfits (primarily of gold lame), framed an elaborately lit sculpture constructed after Michelangelo’s Pietà. The image of the Pietà, which Ladda made using his characteristic technique of painting from projected slides, was (again, characteristically) legible only from one specific vantage point. As the viewer moved around the sculpture, the Lego-like building blocks revealed themselves to be consumer-goods boxes that tumbled into rubble at the back. A pattern of crosses covering the surrounding wall and several of the columns pointed to Ladda’s “religious” theme, which was complicated by the floor pattern of interlocking geometric forms (skewed crosses that verged on swastikas) and, everywhere, garish lights and colors—purple, turquoise, pale green, lavender.

Ladda’s point seems to be that our dominant belief systems—here posited as fashion, art, and religion—are the equivalent of consumer ideologies, which we devour interchangeably with little regard to their relative worth. The theme isn’t very deep, and certainly not new: indeed, it’s the standard line of current commodity art. But Ladda, who generally tends to one-liners, revealed an unusual complexity in this carefully integrated installation. The way in which he juggled relations between three-dimensional space and two-dimensional projection, object and shadow, flat pattern and illusionistic volume, and even figuration and abstraction raises the issue of whether the commodity artists aren’t closet formalists. And his ideas were wonderfully marshaled in his playing with perspective: there was the “perfect” vantage point from which the image cohered to frame a view of religiously colored esthetic inspiration, and the “imperfect” one—perhaps the most important—from which the image disintegrated into consumer dreck. Ladda’s dualities proclaim the inevitable destiny of capitalized art.

Kate Linker