Pop lives

Pub date October 3, 2006
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

› johnny@sfbg.com
REVIEW There are different doors through which one can enter dunya dinlemiyor (the world won’t listen), a 2005 video installation by British artist Phil Collins. One can chart the many passages that lead from Collins’s work to the music of the Smiths, whose vocalist Morrissey chose an image from Andy Warhol’s Trash to adorn the cover of the group’s second attempt at creating a proper first album. In turn, those doors lead to Warhol’s earlier screen tests, which Collins deliberately invokes through dunya dinlemiyor’s song-length portraits of Smiths fans in Istanbul. These connections form more than one circuit — in fact, they do more than a figure eight. Even when out of fashion, pop art has a three-degrees-of-Warhol relationship to contemporary art. Is it really so extraordinary?
In this case the answer is yes. Whereas Warhol’s screen tests are powered by the egos of his superstars and other art movers and makers, Collins’s portraits shock through their anonymity and most of all, their unexpected emotional profundity. “15 minutes of shame,” reads the T-shirt of one of the two girls who sing “Panic” at the beginning of dunya dinlemiyor’s karaoke box versions of the songs that make up The World Won’t Listen, a 1987 Rough Trade compilation from the Smiths’ last year of creative life. The time-based phrase plays off both an oft-repeated — and garbled — Warhol quote and an early Morrissey lyric. But most of dunya dinlemiyor bypasses such referentiality to lay bare the perhaps singular universality of Smiths songs.
There are some other knowing nudges early on, as when a young man performs “Ask” in the manner of 1983–84 Morrissey, shirt unbuttoned and flowers sprouting from his ass pocket. Even in this pantomime or imitation, the gender liberation of Smiths songs — the way in which Morrissey-worship has allowed straight and gay men to enact or express unconventional forms of masculinity — is apparent. But this liberation takes an even more revelatory form with some of Collins’s female subjects. Their performances engage with and bloom from the lyrics in a manner quite different from the traditional courtship roles when female fans respond to words written by a man.
The most joyous, spine-tingling example has to be a pair of girls who hold hands while duetting on “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Here, the substitution of someone else in the Morrissey role works wonders. Absent the frontperson’s overbearing persona, the music takes flight in unexpected directions. Using generic vacation-spot photos as a backdrop, Collins separates these Smiths fans from any stereotypes viewers might attach to Turkey. The closest thing to a culturally specific Old World reference is the twist of a woman’s muezzin prayer-wail approach to the finale of “Rubber Ring,” with its “Don’t forget the songs” litany.
The best door through which to enter dunya dinlemiyor is that provided by Collins, a simple passage surrounded by the flypapered advertisements that attracted his collaborators. This show is the absolute opposite of American Idol. Its most haunting and sublime interpretation has to be “Asleep,” sung by a young man with fresh scars on his forehead. His face is framed in extreme close-up in a manner that admires his beauty and aches to reach out to him, as if Carl Theodor Dreyer were lusting for Maria Falconetti. The Smiths have inspired no shortage of books, movies, and music, but this might be the best response to their songbook I’ve encountered.
In “Neopopular Demand,” Atlanta artist Fahamu Pecou takes a rather more acidic view of popular music and Warhol’s pop legacy, specifically the decadent Interview years. His large paintings depicting himself as a magazine cover star were partly inspired by the almost action-figure aspect of 50 Cent’s rise to rap fame. Which is to say, Pecou’s work is both a response to 50’s exaggeration of a hip-hop hypermasculine bravado (a front that toys with and embraces caricature) and a commentary on the enthusiasm with which American culture consumes thug routines. Don’t get it twisted: Pecou loves hip-hop. He just doesn’t worship it.
The presence of imitation Jean-Michel Basquiat chalk scribbles at the edges and sometimes centers of Pecou’s paintings brings recent art history into the equation — in a manner that taunts potentially clueless buyers. Pecou possesses a post-Basquiat dandified flair (as with another compelling artist, Kehinde Wiley, it manifests in self-portraiture) and a skepticism that can only come from viewing the fatal footsteps of such a talent. He is in the process of making a film about his own self-creation as an art and media star, an endeavor that isn’t as revealing about his bright future as the edges of his canvases. That is where handsome paint renderings of magazine photos and fonts give way to shades of white that more than hint there are many other areas that he wants to explore. After painting himself into commercial boxes, Pecou leaves a space open so that he might perform a Harry Houdini–like escape. SFBG
Through Jan. 21, 2007
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF
$7–$12 (free first Tuesdays; half price Thursdays after 6 p.m.)
(415) 357-4000
Through Nov. 20
Michael Martin Galleries
101 Townsend, suite 207, SF
(415) 543-1550
To read an interview with Fahamu Pecou, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.