San Francisco

What can Goth do for politics?

David J. Haskins, Sabotaged Sheets, 1979. Collage on paper, 8-1/2 x 11 inches. Wall of Sound exhibition, Steven Wolf Fine Arts.

This summer San Francisco has not one but two gallery exhibitions that explore the legacy of punk and post-punk. Wall of Sound, at Steven Wolf Fine Arts, presents artworks by seminal figures of the late-1970s music scene (including Monte Cazazza, V. Vale, and Exene Cervenka), and I’m So Goth – I’m Dead! at Queen’s Nails Projects features mostly contemporary pieces that deal with the “Gothic sensibility” in one way or another.

The two shows are linked by the work of David J. Haskins, best known as the bass player for Bauhaus and Love and Rockets. His intricately crafted collages dominate the Steven Wolf exhibition; Queen’s Nails has only one piece of his, but it is given pride of place by the entrance. Haskins’s works are among the few pieces that make Wall of Sound more than a nostalgic trip or a celebration of the trashy, no-budget aesthetic that punk did so much to promote.

Even though Haskins is the man who wrote the lyrics to the ur-Goth song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” his collages on view at both galleries (all made in 1979) feature little stereotypically Gothic imagery. He seemed more preoccupied with the workings of the consumer society, and his outlook was pessimistic. Recurrent in his pieces is the juxtaposition of advertisement or propaganda images of “picture-perfect” people (athletes, models, etc.) with photographs of consumer products and various machines with bare insides. Symbolically equating people with those inanimate objects, the artist seemed to imply that within the capitalist society people are lowered to the level of automatons (easily manipulated with the help of mass media) or commodities. Haskins’s collages channel the mood of dread and paranoia, since they do not presuppose a position outside of the capitalist consumer society. His pieces were very much in tune with the emerging postmodernist art, preoccupied as it was with its own complicity in the deplorable state of affairs.

Claire Fontaine, La société du spectacle brickbat, 2006. Brick and archival print on archival paper. 7”x 4 ½” x 2 ½”. I’m So Goth – I’m Dead exhibition, Queen’s Nails Projects.

The mood of dread and paranoia is foundational for the I’m So Goth… exhibition, which claims to tackle, among other things, “the collapse of the economy and the decline of the spirit.” The curators Bob Linder and Julio César Morales seem to imply that now, like in the late 1970s, Gothic pessimism is an appropriate reaction to what the world has turned into. I’m So Goth… is not your typical “dark arts” exhibition filled with images of vampires , roses, and skulls–instead the show features unobvious pieces that make it haunted by the specter of political action. Works such as Claire Fontaine’s brick wrapped in the cover of La Societé du Spectacle by Guy Debord (La société du spectacle brickbat, 2006) and Enrique Chagoya’s print that depicts Obama tormented by demons (The Head Ache, 2010) indicate that the curators are interested in the intersection of Goth and politics. Why is Goth important now, they seem to ask.

The Goth aesthetic is famous for its attention to the absurd, the irrational, the uncanny, and the tragic–the things that mainstream left-liberalism disregards. It is to the credit of the Queen’s Nails curators that they chose works that do not “beautify” or trivialize those concepts. The most potent works in the show are those that present something slightly unsettling, something that hints at violence and does not fit into a rosy, rational picture of the world, without offering the viewer any explanation or possibility for redemption. Such are the paintings of intense masklike faces by Desiree Holman (Untitled, 2012) and Eamon Ore-Giron (Grace Mask, 2010), as well as the concrete sculptures by Andrea Bacigalupo (Cleave, 2012) that resemble giant excised ribs. Such is the video by Anne McGuire that shows the artist after an injury, naked and awkward, with a metal device attached to her forearm (When I Was a Monster, 1996). The curators also explored how Goth (or, in this case, proto-Goth) aesthetic can be used to express grief and indignation by including a 1967 antiwar painting by Beat artist Wally Hedrick (Vietnam Series III). For this work Hedrick used only black paint, applying it to the canvas in a very messy fashion. The result is ugly and thrilling at the same time.

3. Wally Hedrick, Vietnam Series III, 1967. Oil on canvas, 48” x 48”. I’m So Goth – I’m Dead exhibition, Queen’s Nails Projects.

The pinnacle of I’m So Goth… is the 12.5-hour video that documents an endurance performance by Bessma Khalaf (The Long Goodbye, 2012). In it the artist pours down candlewax to create a wall. The absurd feat is soundtracked by drone music. Khalaf might have been commenting on the illusory and pathetic nature of all escapism–the walls we surround ourselves with ultimately turn out to be fragile–but the whole fact that she did it for 12.5 hours serves as an example of people’s indestructible will towards paradoxical, irrational actions. The work can also be seen as a Goth-tinged riff on Santiago Sierra’s meditations on punishing labor.

Both I’m So Goth… and Wall of Sound can be commended for bringing to light works by many “under the radar” artists. While the Steven Wolf show seems to be a timely postscript to last year’s Under the Big Black Sun exhibition at the LA MOCA (which explored, among other things, California’s 1970s punk culture), I’m So Goth… feels like a teaser for a more vast exploration of a fruitful topic. Ultimately, what I feel behind this counterculture nostalgia and interest in Goth is a plea for the American left to grow big fangs.

Wall of Sound runs at Steven Wolf Fine Arts until September 8th. I’m So Goth – I’m Dead runs at Queen’s Nails Projects until September 15th