New York

John Fekner

Exit Art

Just as the graffiti artists of the ’80s were lured into the galleries from their outdoor urban sites, John Fekner hit the streets. Traveling around at night and often sleeping in his car, Fekner imprinted troubled areas of New York City with large stenciled words (seen here in slide projections), attacking the destruction of the environment and the adverse social conditions that surround us. The sites spoke for themselves: garbage dumps, decrepit buildings, junkyard pileups of used cars or TVs. Onto these Fekner applied straightforward messages: “LOST HOPE” on a bombed-out housing project; “ABANDONED” on the shell of a building silhouetted against the sky, a heap of rubble behind it; and “DECAY” on everything from buildings to old cars.

Fekner’s stencils functioned as epitaphs on unintended monuments, marking the end of an industrial era dependent on petrochemical plenty. “INDUSTRIAL AMERICA 1920” dates one site, and rusting buses are labeled “THE GASOLINE ERA” and “THE VANISHING RACE.” But of course the squander goes on: people continue to commute in individual gas-guzzlers, and each year new models roll off the assembly lines. Failed housing projects are torn down in order to erect new ones, and the concrete jungle consumes more acres every day. Hence Fekner’s words are also warnings: by labeling relics of past destruction, he transforms them into omens of troubles to come. He also removes the blinders that shield us from the problems: a pyramid of defunct TVs, set for contrast on a pile of leaves, is marked “ABCD. . .NO TV”: the word “READ” inscribed on the back of a billboard encourages us to look beyond seductive surfaces. Elsewhere Fekner reminds us of what we have lost and of who has suffered in our rapid development: the names of decimated Native American tribes appear on highway underpasses, and natural elements (“TREES,” “OCEAN”) crop up on buildings and highway dividers.

Fekner also makes more traditional sculptures addressing similar themes. Sports Illustrated, 1992, wryly comments on game hunting by using a deer’s head trophy to illustrate “sport”; elsewhere the artist stencils “AMERICA, AMERICA” and an image of a row of oil cans over a found painting of birds flying over a marsh. In a series entitled “INDUSTRIAL FOSSILS,” 1985–87, he coats old 45-rpm records (themselves petrochemical byproducts), combined with other objects, in tar. Fekner employs weird, often unpromising materials and objects, from records and CDs to “cast paper” to a Formica table coated with pennies, with unsettling effects. Like the stencil pieces, these objects become ironic trophies of the darker side of human productivity. While Fekner’s concern with oil, gas, and cars may seem practically quaint in comparison with the current and considerably more devastating effects of nuclear waste, both his indoor and his outdoor works, by focusing on local sites and ordinary consumer products, are resonant reminders that, NIMBY pleas aside, uncontrollable waste is piling up in our own backyards.

Lois E. Nesbitt