American Beauty South
by Laura Tuley

"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be."

--Walter Benjamin

In his "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin speculates that technology has liberated art from context: "Technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself." This, Benjamin suggests in a Marxist vein, is an essentially positive development. Art, he argues, emancipated by technology from the rituals of its production and the sanctity of its frame, is stripped of its aura of uniqueness and made accessible to all. Benjamin did not, however, predict the proliferation of kitsch, or the superficial imitation of aesthetic formulas, one by-product of technical reproduction in communion with the politics of conformity (on either end of the ideological spectrum), that would effectively pacify, not enlighten, the masses. Milan Kundera observes in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, "The feeling induced by kitsch must be the kind the multitudes can share…kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable to human existence." Rather than democratize art, technology in the twentieth century tended, rather, to cosmeticize its surface and reduce its complexity; to render the beautiful banal and to conceal the ugly (i.e., the specter of death) through the very abstraction of art from environment by which Benjamin was inspired.

In his startling exhibit "American Beauty South," curator and artist Jack Niven and his collective of renegade artists restore uniqueness to the strip culture of mass production that is Airline Highway in its well-traveled passage between the city of New Orleans and the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Littered with neon advertisements, neglected centers of commerce, gas stations and 1950's-era lodging, this particularly busy section of road assaults one's senses with its over abundance of signage and decay. It is into this chaotic milieu that Niven has injected what Benjamin might recognize as the "aura" of original art. Selecting as his "frame" seven motels, Niven and his artistic collaborators have mounted seven paintings (an eighth is scheduled to be installed by the end of the year) that variously both reflect and do not reflect their backdrop to create the simultaneous effect of individual installations and a collective exhibition. Driving down Airline, the pieces oddly blend with their hosts, as if old motels were natural and obvious sites for original works of art, as if they themselves, on some register, already are works of art by their very specific histories and inability to keep up with the engines of industrial capitalism. Could it be that it is, in fact, technical insufficiency, rather than technical proficiency, that in the twenty-first century offers a refuge from kitsch or enables the eccentricity that is the hallmark of creativity?

Niven's own visual text, the first in the series (if one is driving out of New Orleans), appears to consider this question. In "Universal Mule" Niven has rendered God's unassuming beast of burden in enormous proportions on a vast canvas against the backdrop of a starry sky. In a sense, Niven has elevated the creature to unnervingly celestial heights (what did this decidedly un-majestic, and slightly sad, animal ever do to earn a seat on high?). In another sense, Niven suggests in the mule's designation as "universal" a kind of archetype. Perhaps, the mule refers to precisely people's universal tendency to follow the mandates of others, that is, to the pacification of servitude. Perhaps, within the context of the theme "American Beauty," Niven's mule is an index to the oft-unthinking American people (here situated in the south) as fundamentally "mule-esque" in their values. That is, beauty (or truth) is the norm and the norm is beautiful. However, we must return the work to its context. Niven's universal beast hovers among the stars, not in isolation (as would his reproduction), but against a faded grey and brown brick wall of the rather decrepit London Lodge. The universal mule cannot therefore simply or even primarily symbolize the archetypal mediocrity that is the American masses under the spell of Techne (that is, soothed by kitsch). Rather, he is the mule or "man" reinvested with spirit: the stubborn mule that persists, despite his disuse in the age of cars and tractors, much like the London Lodge persists, despite the proliferation of chains like Holiday Inn. He (the mule) and it (the lodge), taken together, are entirely eccentric and defiantly unique.

And so it is with every piece in the "American Beauty South" series; each uncanny painting appears to celebrate the anachronism and singularity of its frame. It is as if a series of old women were given, not face lifts, or even makeovers, but just the right lushly-colored hat to highlight their sterling, but rarely noticed curls, and honor their lined and wizened faces. It is as if American Beauty South dares to ask the rest of us, zombies of the digitized, commoditized and isolated world of Blackberries and iPods, to slow down, do a u-turn, and maybe even stop, to remember our selves and our culture in its particular setting.

Laura Tuley
New Orleans, 2008

Laura Tuley teaches English at University of New Orleans. She frequently diverts her roving, critical eye to visual matters and writing about art.

[ back to top ]