When Clement Greenberg wrote his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in 1939, he declared art as standing opposite kitsch, as a remedy to the dumbing down of taste in a consumer culture. In the decades since, however, many painters and sculptors have skipped back and forth across the line he laid down to discover something that represents our culture without triviality. Jeff Koons, Laurie Anderson, and Kiki Smith are a few artists who have wrestled this issue, and Utah transplant Leslie D. Pippen is another. Currently working on pieces for Choose to See a Car Accident, Snake or Owl, an exhibit opening at the Bountiful Davis Art Center May 18th, Pippen is known for his depictions of human structure and his own personal mythos exploring his personal history tempered by the symbols of culture he finds in everyday life.
As told in an interview with Mapping Salt Lake City (which can be found here) Pippen comes from a rural area of East Texas so far away from a hospital that he was actually born in a nursing home. Salt Lake City became his home because it was his final stop after working as a flight attendant in the years after 9/11. Here, the artist adopted an intriquing icon in the form of a tattoo of a highly carictured African-American porter on his right arm — it was the logo used to represent the Coon Chicken Inn, a popular restaurant chain that began in Salt Lake City in 1925 but folded by the late 1950s — in large part because its marketing was considered racially and culturally insensitive. To Pippen, the porter is not just a racist image, a manifestation of a disconnect between a believing people — the majority population of Mormons in Utah — and the historical dehumanization of others; it is also, inked onto his brown skin, a reclaimed image, a form of, perhaps, ancestor worship. His adoption of the Coon Chicken Inn porter is not unlike Betye Saar’s mammy figures, especially The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1971), which turned the stereotyped idea of the syrup spokesperson on its head by giving her a gun, identity, power to free herself from previous depictions and own her own destiny.
Pippen’s most recent works, however, tackle different themes, exploring instead human relationships to nature and mechanical reproduction. For these pieces, Pippen has encrusted the surface of his paintings with pony beads – the large, colorful plastic beads known in the early 2000’s for keychain crafts, friendship bracelets and, most importantly, the perfect way to end a braid. These mass-produced, pop culture elements create an interesting texture across the picture plane, like scales or shingles, seeming to almost move as they catch the light. They also look strangely like eyes, all fixed on one spot, glinting from the picture plane. The association of eyes is also furthered by the titles of the works — “Panopticon” and “Head in Snow” — as well as the exhibition title, which invites viewers to pick their own adventure, decide which object they want to find inside the painting whether a car accident, a snake, or an owl.
“Panopticon,” of course, refers to Jeremy Bentham’s proposed circular prison that would contain one guard tower with a view into each individual cell from the center. The intent, later expanded by Michel Foucault, was that the prisoners would all behave because they did not know when they were being watched. Theoretically, a guard would not even have to be in the tower for the prisoners to behave, just the mere threat of a supervisor in the form of the tower was enough.
“Head in Snow” is the exact opposite of the panopticon — rather than the viewer seeing all, they see nothing except white drifts across the ground. Like an ostrich burying its head in the sand to hide from the world, a viewer with their head in the metaphorical snow may not see anything of value, danger, or interest in Pippen’s work. There is, however, much to ponder from the originality of using pony beads in his work to his vibrant, almost digital color palette.
Choose to See a Car Accident, Snake or Owl, work by Leslie D. Pippen, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, May 18-June 22, May Exhibits opening reception May 18, 6-8 p.m.
Hannah Sandorf Davis graduated with a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts from Brigham Young University.