Michael Waugh’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, Boom, is currently on view at Von Lintel Gallery. Using ink on Mylar, Waugh reimagines an assortment of 19th-century tableaux, depicting quaint scenes of countryside estates and horse stables, as well as turn-of-the-century buildings on New York City streets. These representational drawings consist wholly of handwritten text: Scribbled sentences produce the contour lines of buildings as they crumble to the ground, while epistolary markings provide contrast to form the underside of a horse. Letters and numbers further constitute the hands and faces of male figures. Waugh has painstakingly scrawled and layered words and sentences across the sheets of Mylar to construct the entirety of every image, spending three to four thousand hours to produce each piece. The amount of labor alone puts Waugh’s drawings on par with the historical legacies of endurance works.
The incongruous titles of the drawings, such as Unfettered Markets (FCIR, part 4) (2015), hint at the content of the words and sentences used to create them. Waugh uses the Congressional Financial Crisis Inquiry Report to form the images of stately manors and equestrians. In Derivative (FCIR, part 5) (2015), the phrase “too big to fail” delineates the horse’s genitals. For the largest piece in the show—a four-panel work depicting a crowd watching a building collapse—Waugh plums Les Règles de l’Art (The Rules of Art) written by the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. Like a gunshot, the stupendous amount of time and labor put into Les Règles de l’Art (2015) is immediate and breathtakingly obvious.
None of Waugh’s drawings contain a single image of a woman. Waugh depicts men circulating among more men through fictional thoroughfares or rowing along on a polite, tree-lined river. Even inside the stables, only studs are found. Waugh evokes an old world based on good manners, pedigree, and male dominance. In the far right panel of Les Règles, a couple of men grope each other. Pleasure, here, flows only between men.
By combining three basic elements—images of 19th-century “good taste,” words describing 21st-century financial catastrophe, and dominant masculinity—Waugh implies that our current economic boom-and-bust cycles are rooted in a history of gendered aesthetic calculus. In other words, the “good life”200 years ago—a life that included property, leisure, and commodities, and that excluded any instances of women or people of color—continues to inform our present-day, exploitative, unequal economic system. Waugh’s drawings are a veiled swipe at an earlier era’s role in the construction of our inherited conditions of hierarchy.
As a result of their illustrative qualities, Waugh’s drawings serve primarily as a demonstration of his argument, acting as a simple equation toward his artistic logic. The works indicate a cognitive tension, all the while allowing viewers to walk away with no visceral uneasiness—mostly due to the drawings’ benign imagery. The only tension in the works lies exclusively within Waugh’s implied argument that 19th-century male-dominated society may be ipso facto the very problem we have today. The drawings hint at—rather than declare—this argument, which is an unsurprising one that has already been well-articulated over the past half-century.
Other artists have created this cognitive tension while also exploring material and visual tension. Glenn Ligon’s text-based paintings, for example, contain similar, damning references to hierarchies of class, race, and power. Ligon’s works, however, also contain an exploration of materials: coal dust mixed with acrylic, silkscreens on unstretched canvasses, neon lettering, and powder-coated aluminum. Waugh seems to ask viewers to look past his use of materials (ink on Mylar) to consider only his imagery, while Ligon’s use of materials deliberately confuses image and ground, never taking the white surface for granted.
Waugh’s drawings and the tidiness of his argument suffer from the very processes he hopes to critique. Beyond the horse scrotum cheekily formed from the words “too big to fail,” there is little surprise or confusion in his work; the drawings are fun and easy to look at. Where is the moment when the viewers of the work are implicated in the drawings’ depictions of hierarchy of class and power? This is the irony of easily digestible (and purchasable) critiques of hegemony. Like a flu shot, the hegemonic system has taken in and processed its critique, and becomes stronger and more entrenched as a result. When does looking at these drawings move beyond a gentle and agreeable experience, and into an uncomfortable one, in which one cannot—ought not—look away?
Michael Waugh: Boom is on view at Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles through October 31, 2015.