Milton Keynes

Hariton Pushwagner, Jobkill, 1990, acrylic and ink on paper, 67 1/2 x 107". From the series “Apocalypse Frieze,” 1973–93.

Hariton Pushwagner, Jobkill, 1990, acrylic and ink on paper, 67 1/2 x 107". From the series “Apocalypse Frieze,” 1973–93.

Hariton Pushwagner

MK Gallery

Hariton Pushwagner, Jobkill, 1990, acrylic and ink on paper, 67 1/2 x 107". From the series “Apocalypse Frieze,” 1973–93.

Visitors were introduced to Hariton Pushwagner’s exhibition “Soft City” by an enormous, open mouth, with graphic pink lips and protruding scarlet tongue, painted around the gallery’s entrance. But the happy Pop appeal of Mouth, 2012, was deceptive. Inside, the tone changed markedly. On a large wall projection, an animation opens with a clock ticking; an alarm rings, a couple awakens. They kill the alarm and take a pill, then go to work in a metropolis called Soft City. Later, the sun sets, they go to sleep, and then it begins all over again. They join a seemingly infinite number of workers, living in identical flats, punching identical clocks; the piece evokes a nightmare vision of modern life in which all aspects of existence resemble factory work. Displayed alongside Soft City Animation, 2010, ensconced in thick black display cases, were the 154 careworn pages of Pushwagner’s epic 1969–75 graphic novel of the same name, from which the film was adapted. Although his work extends from comics and film to paintings and prints, Pushwagner’s craft is very much rooted in drawing. His vision is in keeping with the dark landscapes that followed the dissolution of the dreams of the ’60s; Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979) could easily be companion pieces to the Norwegian artist’s dystopian metropolis.

With an imagination notoriously fueled by alcohol and drugs—and accordingly eccentric behavior—the Norwegian artist maintains a dark view of life that is perhaps best captured in the exhibition’s centerpiece, “Apocalypse Frieze,” 1973–93. In its seven large panels, here brought together and displayed in a single unifying thick dark frame, Pushwagner (real name: Terje Brofos) has assembled a Bruegelesque mise-en-scène of urbanism, industrialism, and war. Citizens, soldiers, planes, and machines are drawn obsessively and repeatedly, creating a labyrinthine postindustrial landscape. The central panel presents a tight, complex weave of skyscrapers filled with faces pressed to the windows, while in another, a river of skeletons floats along below a sky filled with war planes as tanks, machinery, and partying people fill the land. There appears to be no place for love in Pushwagner’s vision, unless it is a passion for the obstinate nature of his own enterprise. In his obsessiveness, and despite his formal training as an artist, Pushwagner displays the disquieting and visionary stance of an outsider.

Pushwagner is a draftsman with a finer and steadier but less expressive line than his rambunctious American contemporary Robert Crumb. The dehumanized nature of his rigid modern city counterpoints Crumb’s satirical America, where eccentricity reigns. This retrospective seemed to underline the idea that human life may be of less significance than the mechanism of the urban metropolis. As we see in the hand-colored graphic work The Pill, 2010–11, Soft City’s citizens, neither happy nor unhappy, keep taking a little pink tablet. It’s called life. People become ants or, worse yet, mere cogs in the city’s rampant mechanism. The grid of the high-rise apartment building becomes the underlying structure of life. We exist, Pushwagner seems to suggest, merely to feed the urban machine.

Sherman Sam