Pop goes the easel

Pop art made the cliché seem clever, but it’s time for it to come off the canvas

Pop art made the cliché seem clever, but it’s time for it to come off the canvas

Jehan Casinader


“I am a deeply superficial person,” mused the late pop artist Andy Warhol. It’s an honest admission; Warhol illustrated mass-produced items and over-exposed celebrities. As Western society came to grips with its consumerism, Warhol reassured people that their buying habits, and their attention to stardom, were to be celebrated, not apologised for. Today, we’re moving in reverse. In New Zealand in particular, pop art’s legacy is its irony and spirit, not the art itself.

Warhol made the kitsch and banal seem fashionable. His paintings of Campbell’s soup cans were adored; his paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy became iconic. Today, would you pay to see images of Janola bottles and Cadbury wrappers? Would you be caught dead in a gallery staring at lithographs of Britney Spears and Hillary Clinton? Get real.

So why, then, have thousands flocked to the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane to view an exclusive retrospective of hundreds of Warhol’s pieces, from sketches to short films? Most of the visitors seem too young to remember Warhol. But they’re not here for him. They’re here because they can relate to his unpredictability and irreverence. It is the spirit of pop art that remains visible in the creative, media and advertising fields today, but not in its typical form.

We see elements of pop art in Karen Walker’s comic-style collection, Miss Misery’s freaky but cute cartoons, and even in the bro’Town caricatures. Kiwi artist Dick Frizzell’s Mickey to Tiki Tu Meke illustration is typical of pop art. The marketing campaigns for Tui beer and new beverage Frank carry the same irreverent, sardonic tone. New Zealanders get it.

The vintage product logos of Pepsi and Coca-Cola adorn the t-shirts of today’s young people. It is likely that, a few decades from now, sentimental t-shirts will feature Tui’s billboard slogans and almost definitely the iPod logo. For now, these icons are mainstream. But even though the heyday of pop art seems distant, it is obvious that its influence is continuous.

Would Warhol balk, however, at the Royal Elastics sneakers released last year, using his painting of a banana to mimic the Nike swoosh? Perhaps not. After all, Warhol made no attempt to hide the overtly commercial nature of much of his work. While his industry was horrified at his open embrace of the market culture, this is what gave Warhol his inspiration.

Pop art has not become irrelevant, but it will need to evolve to provide an alternative to the mainstream. Newer advertising mediums, multimedia platforms and consumer choices offer new creative avenues for pop art to filter through. Pop art is still about uniting all parts of society through simplicity, but it no longer needs to illustrate clichés to seem impressive.

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Some of Warhol’s work, including many of his celebrity portraits and short films, still retain their brilliance. Other pieces included in the exhibition, like sketches of Cadillacs and newspapers, are frankly lifeless and uninspired. Warhol’s inconsistency leaves one to wonder: is this piece of art a revolutionary stroke of genius, or just a mindless scribble? It’s that question that keeps pop art interesting, says Amber Bill, the co-owner of Wellington’s Pop Up gallery. She says Kiwi pop art “is now about adding a touch of reality to imagination, rather than a touch of imagination to reality”.

It’s also important to note that pop art has always filled a void in our arts scene. Many students who enter art institutions don’t feel they fit, or find their academic discourse restraining. Many talented young artists, including Frizzell’s son Otis, have used pop art—which is barely definable—to promote their unique talents.

Like Warhol, many young artists still use lo-fi art and culture magazines—often produced from kitchen tables—to get their product out there.

It’s ironic, then, that pop art has become a source of academic fascination. In its purest form, pop art rejects the intellectualisation of art. While scholarly diatribes gave other artistic disciplines academic clout, pop art made no such effort. Sophisticated examination of art has always tended to alienate those who don’t care for elitist criticism and mumbo-jumbo.

Today, with the rise of fair trade, environmental issues and changes in the family unit, consumerism and celebritydom have become stigmatised once again. Pop art, therefore, can no longer celebrate those concepts without attracting its own stigma. Instead, pop art must find new themes to grasp with irony and dissimilarity. For this generation, Warhol’s work signifies an attitude to life, not an artistic genre. As long as there is a place for the subversive, then pop art, in whatever form, will hold a lively place in New Zealand’s creative scene.

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