Pasadena Museum of California Art
The Day, the Earth
Solway Jones Gallery
Los Angeles, CA
When you think of the history of decoration, the stripe seems to arrive late in the game. In primitive art there are figures and abstract decorations, little people, animals, leaves, flowers, lines used in all kinds of ways—woven, crisscrossed and plaited. Though timeless in its simplicity, the stripe in our current imagination seems modern, from seersucker to pin stripes to the classic 1970s Hang Ten shirts. In the last few years, stripes have resurfaced on the runways, at Ikea and at Target, looking fresh again. They are well suited to abstraction, since they are a kind of extrapolation of the minimal two-dimensional mark—a line—repeated ad infinitum. Unlike other abstractions, they are often loaded with meaning, perhaps because, like the checkerboard, stripes are extremely good at getting our attention.
Susan Silton’s interest in the stripe was almost a coincidence. While looking for an image for a billboard commission in 2004, she found a photograph that she had shot of a house tented for fumigation in red, white and blue stripes and fronted by a sold sign, like so many tented houses in California. At first using the image as a metaphor for America in an election year, both as commodity and site of patriotic paranoia, Silton began to trace the history of stripes. Like salt, torture, and the color mauve, stripes have a vivid cultural history that, however subliminally, affects our reception of them. In the middle ages, stripes were marks of outsiderhood: convicts, clowns and prostitutes were obliged to wear them, and the stripe carries with it these overtones of shunning, banning and expulsion. In the revolutions of the 18th century, stripes were taken up by progressive causes and ended up on the flags of both the United States and France. The stripe triumphantly lauded the end of injustice and the new era of equality for all, outsiders and insiders.
This autumn many drivers in Southern California might have noticed the Pasadena Museum of California Art covered in gaudy striped tarps and assumed it meant termites rather than artists at work, but they would be wrong. As one part of Silton’s three-piece stripe offensive, the tenting was a commission from the museum in tandem with her installation of stripes in their project room. Just down the street from Daniel Buren’s installation of striped flags over the courtyard at One Colorado, Silton’s work tweaks the terms of both the artist best known for using stripes (Buren), and Christo, the artist best known for tenting or wrapping. The fumigation tarp is a sign of no good, of termites at work, but also of certain victory: those termites will die. On the museum, the tent asks us what might be rotten inside, art, commerce, or concealment? And what is vindicated when the tent is removed? The title of the installation, Inside Out, refers to the work’s dual nature, not obvious from the car: the contents of the inside—the striped room—are also displayed on the exterior. It’s easy for us to conflate the museum with a circus tent at this point, and all the art with a Louis Vuitton bag of tricks. Of course, Silton’s meaning is more nuanced than this, as suggested by the topsy-turvy nature of the stripe’s way of working.
Inside the project room, you see just how much Silton wants us to think about stripes, letting the love of them, a kind of linophilia, if you will, run head long into claustrophobia to produce a nearly deafening commentary on the stripe today. Containing consumer objects of every stripe, the room doesn’t sit still. Dozens of striped wrapping papers and wallpapers line the perimeter; striped carpets, sofas, chairs and pillows abound. There are striped beach balls, shower curtains, napkins, plates, boxes, ceramics, bracelets, clocks, socks, beach towels, pool balls, Christmas ornaments, handbags, potholders, shoes, flip flops, men’s ties, stockings and socks. Look again and you see striped cups, plates, pitchers, striped umbrellas raining down from the ceiling, and striped Barbie outfits to complement the human clothes. There are striped greeting cards sent from Silton’s friends, striped candy, striped toothbrushes and even a striped toilet seat.
In this room, the stripe leaps from decorative style to complete lifestyle, with a suffocating exuberance. The striped bed in Silton’s room is diametrically opposed to Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998). Silton’s bed is buttoned down, obsessive and neat, but just as noisy as Emin’s in its way. Emin claims that her bed, with its empty booze bottles, dirty laundry and cigarette butts, is a tell-all autobiography. Silton’s is more a testament to repression by consumerism than any legible, let alone artistic, identity. At the end of the exhibit, Silton will hold a sale of all the objects in the striped installation, returning them to the consumer circulation from which they emerged. Nature abhors a vacuum, her room seems to say, and the consumer rushes in to fill it with products just as designers fill it with stripes. The room is dizzying—dazzling as you enter and strangely overwhelming once you’re inside. The innate festivity or happiness of the stripe turns quickly to vertigo and melancholia when pushed to the limit, giving us the alpha and the omega of the stripe universe.
In her research, Silton was especially influenced by the work of Michel Pastoureau, whose study of the history of the stripe, The Devil’s Cloth, begins in medieval Europe, where social outcasts were marked by stripes in one form or another in their clothing. Disturbing the established order, these outcasts’ stripes begin a trail that detours over to revolutionary flags but returns in prisoners’ striped outfits, circuses, and fumigation tents. While idiosyncratic, Pastoureau’s study is based on a dynamic thesis that the origin of medieval distrust in the stripe was based on the period’s soon-to-be-shifted modes of perception. Perspective in medieval illustration was built up in layers rather than through the use of the vanishing point, which appears in the fifteenth century. Images were read from the back layer through the front-most, from backdrop to church to horse, cart and human figure, but the stripe is troubling because it is one layer that might be mistaken for two. Stripes were confounding to medieval aesthetics, Pastoureau argues, and thus relegated to the realm of the distrustful and even Satanic, a legacy that persists clandestinely into the modern period. Perhaps for this reason the stripe emerges in so much revolutionary symbolism in the 18th century: the downtrodden return to demand equality, as one stripe among many others in the social fabric. The modern citizen has earned his stripes.
The third component of Silton’s stripe campaign is an exhibit of five new photographs at Solway Jones Gallery. The scale and intensity of the prints are essential to their impact; they are so vivid it would be tempting to call them psychedelic, but they are more properly hypnotic. Each photograph is about six feet high by five feet wide, and in each the stripes form a kind of veil over a still image from a 1950s or ‘60s apocalyptic film. The title of the show is The Day, the Earth. The five film stills are barely recognizable through the colored stripes, producing confusion between message and noise as well as backdrop and foreground. Pulsating with polychromatic energy, these images break from two dimensions into the third and even fourth—the dimension of time—as they seem animated.
The source films are echoed in the titles, On the Beach, Panic in Year Zero, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (all 2006). The stills themselves, which Silton collected in Hollywood memorabilia shops, are all of human faces in various indeterminable states of distress or confusion. Sometimes called atomic cinema, this genre of apocalyptic film arose during the cold war and is often understood as an expression of American anxiety at both the political atmosphere and the distrust or paranoia of the McCarthy-period atomic age. They resonate anew post 9/11 in an era of misinformation, dire political scenarios and conservative prophecies of a “clash of civilizations.” The stripes are in broad palettes of vibrant color that modulate in hue and intensity from one end to the other. This modulation fills them with energy and a kind of movement more kinetic than cinematic, which plays against the frozen quality of the apocalyptic film stills.
Silton’s images generate a powerful cognitive dissonance by their veiling of photographic images with polychromatic graphic stripes. This resonates with phobias and philias that come courting in her striped installation, and plays off a broader question: to what degree do abstractions carry meanings, and how stably? While we recognize that stripes may have a history, for the most part today they are simply decoration. The stripe figures largely in abstract art, color field painting and even conceptual art, but what does it say? Daniel Buren mounts an argument for the stripe as a form of language in space, a “seeing tool” or visual instrument for challenging traditional ideas about art. Silton works more as a clown than a conceptualist, deploying the stripe to ask questions about outsiderhood and Modernity. There is a mesmerizing power to her new images, due in part to the noise made by layering signification—or quotation—with abstraction. The optical charge of the stripe has an energy all its own, an analogue perhaps to the mystifying energy of the modern world, where images appear floating on clouds and humans disappear into thin air.
Matias Viegener is a Los Angeles based writer, artist and critic who teaches at CalArts and is a founder of the art collective Fallen Fruit.