Magazine article Artforum International

Julia Wachtel: Elizabeth Dee

Magazine article Artforum International

Julia Wachtel: Elizabeth Dee

Article excerpt

Julia Wachtel

ELIZABETH DEE

In Stripe, 2014, the friezelike centerpiece of her recent exhibition "Empowerment," Julia Wachtel pairs silk-screened images of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un with painted cartoons of South Korean pop star Psy, singer of the once ubiquitous "Gangnam Style." The juxtaposition is cemented visually by the gray band that gives the work its title. In comparing these figures, the artist prompts us to ask where real power lies--totalitarian military might or Web-age celebrity--and how the mass media work to reinforce or undermine its status. It's an area that Wachtel, influenced by the Pictures generation, has been exploring since the 1980s.

Wachtel began appropriating cartoons in her earliest works, borrowing them from cheap greeting cards to comment on our psychosocial condition as consumers of images and goods. This strategy remains central to her visual language, the often crass drawings functioning as a kind of debased Greek chorus when presented alongside reproductions of historical or contemporary import. In "Empowerment," cartoons crop up several times, in more or less mocking cast. Wild, 2014, for example, features hazy silk screens of a California wildfire surrounding a grotesque anthropomorphized cigarette holding up a lighter and leering in wicked satisfaction. Is this the too-obvious parable of cause and effect it appears to be? Or is it rather, as Wachtel has hinted, about "the experience of 'making sense,'" a meditation on the viewer's own assumptions?

In her essay on Wachtel's work for the catalogue that accompanied the artist's 2014-15 survey at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Quinn Latimer argues, compellingly, that Wachtel's juxtapositions not only tackle but also transcend issues around the significatory power of existing images and the politics of their appropriation, thereby taking on our "emotional and economic investment" therein. …

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