Review | The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up: Cobra and Its Legacy

Installation image by Joshua White, courtesy of Blum & Poe. 

The vast array of images in the show The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up: Cobra and its Legacy on view at Blum & Poe L.A., after the first leg of the show opened in their New York space, remind me of post-war trauma, as seen in post-WWI images of men coming back from fighting and watching their friends die and seeing hope not just fade, but completely disappear. The Getty recently hosted a similarly traumatic show called World War I: War of Images, Images of War. After this first massive world war that used technology in a way never before seen, killing 20 million and wounding 21 million, it’s hard to fathom that such horrificness could ever happen again. But then World War II came along, and the images got worse, bloodier, the fatalities increased, and so perhaps it makes sense that the art created during this post-war period got even more bizarre and hopeless.

This is where the bicoastal show The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up: Cobra and Its Legacy seems to begin. With the first half of the show already opened in New York, this West Coast installation focuses on Asger Jorn, one of the Cobra founder s, a Danish man who lived from 1914-73. We see many of his contributions to the movement, including paintings he did on paintings he bought from flea markets, abstract paintings, and other “experiments” with ceramics and textiles.

Also: Review | Genevieve Gaignard: For Us Only

Rather than leave this exhibition hinging on this formerly unknown movement, which supposedly ended with the formal dissolution of COBRA in 1951, curator Alison M. Gingeras argues that aesthetically the movement has gone on to influence many artists since, and as such she pairs the COBRA artists with contemporary artists such as Mark Grotjahn, Alice Mackler, Rashid Johnson, Julian Schnabel, Alexander Tovborg and Andra Ursuta, to name a few. In effect, the exhibition has the feel of a small museum show, which works well for the sprawling white walls of Blum & Poe’s spacious Culver City location.

Photo by Alicia Eler

In mixing the past and the present, this is a curatorially curious show to wander through, but also relevant in that it suggests the avant-garde of post-war Europe is struggling with some of the same questions as today’s avant-garde. Some of these questions may include: How are female bodies commodified in a culture and economy that’s been complicated by war times? In what ways have definitions of masculinity been complicated by this same culture? Gendering the lens through which we view this period of artwork changes the meaning. 

A few of the works that really caught my eye included an almost floor-to-ceiling painting by Julian Schnabel called “Veramente Bestia V (Girl With No Eyes),” 1988, which portrays a blonde, German-looking, rather docile woman with a slash mark over her eyes; a thrift-store style painting of a wave crashing upon a shore with the words SURPRISE YOUR LOVED ONES and a black faceless form in the foreground (a piece by Mark Flood); a few cutesy wood animals in a docile scene with the word SEX in the lower righthand corner; and the rather delightful sunset painting with the word WHORE floating in the sky (also by Mark Flood).

Nearby, the drippy gruesome painting “Spring Garden for Asger” (1963) shows two women, one topless, laying in some manic-dream of a garden, their eyes blotted out. A swan muddles its way through a pond in the foreground, but sadly it has lost its beak, or just the color scheme of this painting. And how could we forget a painting of what looks like a girl from Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656), except in Asger’s rendition we see her against a chalkboard that’s been sloppily written on, as if graffitied but for purposes unknown. Thanks to the masterful touch of Asger, she also has a moustache. In another room, there are life-size cigarette sculptures, their forms damaged by forces unknown. They suggest an underlying cultural sickness, their guts punched out and weakened. 

Mark Flood, “Whore”, 1983. Photo by Alicia Eler.

While I want to believe the premise of this show — that this is an important post-war movement that was overlooked for some unknown reason, and is now being brought back into the public eye through a masterful pairing with some contemporary artists — I feel skeptical. The aesthetic parallels that curator Alison M. Gingeras asserts between this maligned past and our present day further suggest a culture that is dealing with sexism and gender trouble, but it’s unclear if the rod is pointed toward any sort of progress. The consistent aesthetic of drips, globs, blotting out and oozing, further enforces the muddiness of this presence, from both the past and onward, making this a show worth visiting so long as you’re prepared to be creeped out. 

The Avant-Garde Won’t Give Up: Cobra and its Legacy is on view at Blum & Poe through Dec. 23, 2015.



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