New York

Komar & Melamid

In Komar and Melamid’s current show, “SearstyleTM with Psalms,” the artists aim their barbs at the latest adventure in utopia: the New World Order, as buttressed by the Bible belt and old-fashioned American consumerism. In Komar & Melamid’s POLCOM, 1992, a video that drones on continuously like the TVs in Sears’ electronics department, the artists have made a “pol-com” (like a sit-com, but political) by adding a jacked-up laugh track to the recent State of the Union address. Mirth erupts not just after the president’s pathetic jokes about Barbara and vomiting, but during every pause. Could the message be any clearer? We’re not laughing with you, George, we’re laughing at you.

Komar and Melamid filled the front gallery to bursting with their rendition of the department store’s merchandise. “Sear-style” means “heavy-duty beauty”: lots of Formica, faux brick and wood paneling, ceiling tile, carpet, artificial plants, clothes racks, washing machines, Sears logos, and catalogues signed by the artists. The installation is an immense parody of our most sacred cows: life (check out the Die Hard car battery on the cover of the latest issue of the artists’ publication, Death Magazine); liberty (buy some Freedom Cans and New Freedom Cans, 1990–92, only 120 calories worth of “FREEDOM, WATER, SALT, AND CALCIUM CHLORIDE. DISODIUM EDTA ADDED AS A PRESERVATIVE”); Modernism (go see Chocolate and Peanut Butter, 1990–92, a painting that looks like a collaboration between Mark Rothko and Reese’s); and Christianity (bow down before Supreme Ceiling Tile Cruciform, 1990–92, a True Cross not made of anything even remotely resembling the true wood). Is nothing sacred?

In the back gallery, the artists presented a large painting entitled Psalms, 1991, depicting various creatures mentioned in the Book of Psalms. On the surrounding walls are a number of diptychs (in Searstyle frames) in which photographs of various details of the painting are paired with Xeroxes of corresponding pages of the Psalter. For example, Psalm 63:10 (“They shall fall by the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes”) is accompanied by an illustration of a red fox in a green suit eating a figure impaled on a sword. In a typically satirical move, Komar & Melamid illustrate the Psalter as a bestiary. But is this pairing of Psalms and Sears gratuitous? Not at all. On Sundays, Sears doesn’t open until just before church lets out. You can go from one to the other without missing a beat.

In a recent interview, Komar and Melamid declared that “there are only three stylistic possibilities for artists of our time—modernism, kitsch, or Sears.” In choosing to adopt in the latter, the two artists inevitably face the same sort of criticism that was directed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s “High/Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” show in 1990. Searstyle is certainly not “true” Sears, which is mass, cheap, and unselfconscious about its fausseté. So is it a matter of the high devouring the low again? Are the artists merely exploiting pop culture? Perhaps. It also may be that Sear-style is neither high nor low; that, Janus-faced, it laughs at both people who buy wood paneling for their dens and people who buy wood paneling for their art collections. Searstyle is not only faux Sears, it is searing satire.

Keith Seward