Out of the Cradle Recklessly Rocking
What’s in a name? The answer is a lot, especially if this question is put before the era known as the Gilded Age. Taking its title from a novel co-authored by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in 1873, the Gilded Age is generally acknowledged by scholars of American History as the era between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the start of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency following the assassination of President William Mckinley in 1901. If ever a word were well exploited it was Twain and Warner’s use of “gilded,” which served as the social portrait of an era best remembered for robber barons and reformers, Republicans and radicals. At face value, to gild, or cover with gold, would have referred to the rise of a banking and industrial aristocracy that included the likes of Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Ironically enough, “gild“‘s homonym, “guild”, would have referenced the widespread unrest of a poor working class and the coming of organized labor. And finally, gild’s noun form, “gilt”, would have brought into play another homonym, “guilt”, a reference to the conscience or lack thereof, of this newly formed aristocracy and that class’s alter ego as embodied in the spirit of reformers and radicals such as Jane Addams and Eugene Debs. For Twain and Warner, American life was a satire of utopia and the novel is a melodramatic reflection on the character of an unprecedented age. Although there was no past against which to measure the Gilded Age, Twain and Warner correctly diagnosed it as a definitive period in American History with which future generations would have to contend.
Los Angeles based artist Kim Dingle not only revisits the Gilded Age, she confronts its inner child. While the paintings, installations and sculptures that comprise this exhibition were executed over the past seven years, taken as a whole, this body of work represents all of American History. It is hard to determine whether Dingle’s aesthetic is that of a grandmother or of her great great grandchildren. Dingle is situated somewhere between Martha Washington and Mike Kelly. The paintings and oversized “action figures” are a wonderfully resolved mixture of artistic genres high, low, and in-between. Her paintings of young girls engaged in what is best described as a “good ol’ fashion hootenanny” could just as easily hang in the museum gallery devoted to American naive painting as they could in the gallery given over to “Action Painting.” Likewise, anyone with an eye for antique Americana could appreciate not only the refined craftsmanship in the porcelain Priss figures but also the comic humility of her Jesus dolls. The milk and cookies comfort associated with Dingle’s work, however, should be reserved for form alone. Although she wears her idiosyncratic sense of humor on her sleeve, it remains at the service of a biting and satiric commentary on the political and social fabric of this country.
History could not possibly erase itself so long as there are books with titles such as Men and Rubber: The Story of Business or The Romance and Drama of the Rubber Industry, both written by none other than Harvey Firestone. Founder of Firestone Tires, friend of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, Firestone is an archetype of a turn-of-the-century American industrial baron. He is also the subject of The Romance and Drama of the Rubber Industry, or My Eraser Collection, a work consisting of 263 framed color photographs of erasers from the artist’s collection. At its material base, everything has a political history and in this instance, Dingle has chosen to signify that of rubber. As the most basic model of historical cause and effect, supply and demand is a tale that even an eraser could tell. Access to raw materials, bargaining with labor, and trade agreements—these are the politics that govern the production and distribution of all objects, even those on the shelves of a Dollar Daze store.
Prior to the dawn of synthetic plastics, rubber was derived from tropical plants, making it a natural resource subject to imperialist speculation. From the tale of native Philippine workers toiling in the sun, to the scrutiny of Firestone factory inspectors, the Firestone quotes Dingle has chosen illustrate the fact that our affairs abroad were inextricably linked to the industrial revolution here at home. Even as early as 1920, Firestone noted the political instability in the Mexican state of Chiapas where he leased a 35,000-acre rubber tree farm. Mexico, Liberia, and the East Indies were just a few of the places in which Firestone had immense holdings and places in which he felt the United States government ought to take an active interest. With its absurd variety, The Romance and Drama of the Rubber Industry, or My Eraser Collection makes apparent that the price for freedom of choice is the United States’ direct involvement in the political affairs of other countries. In referencing so specific and significant an individual in the history of American industrial enterprise,* The Romance and Drama of the Rubber Industry, or My Eraser Collection* is Dingle’s most overtly political work. This may seem like a tall tale for an eraser, but rubber’s history is synonymous with the United States’ bid for empire, making both the eraser and Firestone very potent metonyms.
America, however, understands itself primarily through metaphor, which explains Dingle’s predilection for flavor over fact. Dingle does not mind that popular American history is built on metaphor. Nor does she mind the symbols chosen to represent the abstract characteristics that immediately come to mind when we think of America. For Dingle, the problem is that the metaphors are neither complex nor personal enough to tell a more accurate story, particularly when it comes to notions such as innocence.
Based on Dingle’s work of the past few years, the United States certainly is not the type of child associated with innocence. At worst, we are an ill-tempered brat and at our most deluded we perceive ourselves as Alice in a wonderland of secure and friendly foreign relations. The latter analogy being derived from Priss Paper (girl on panda), a work so cuddly in comparison to the other Priss paintings, that it qualifies as fantasy art. Were it hung in a child’s bedroom, Priss Paper would call little attention to itself. It depicts the untroubled sleep of a child with a conscience free from guilt or fear. As a metaphor, however, the untroubled sleep of children is not an individual but a collective fantasy. It is with a puritanical fervor verging on the perverse that we want to believe the bright plastic promises made to children. We dream of far away lands where everyone wears vibrant colors and Señoritas are serenaded by Señores. This is in stark contrast to our current relationship with Mexico, a relationship rife with a hostile paternalism. We dream of Richard Nixon’s China, one as friendly as the pandas presented to the United States as a gift after Nixon restored relations with mainland China. This memory has been obscured by George Bush’s China, which will be remembered for the student uprising in Tiennamen Square followed by a strict boycott due to their violation of human rights. These are harsh associations for an image as harmless as Priss Paper. What lurks behind the benign exotic, however, is the unfulfilled wish for a national night of no-obligation sleep.
“The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic Coast, it is the Great West.” This statement was made by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893. It comes from the opening of his groundbreaking essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History, which was actually delivered here in Chicago at the Colombian Exposition. There was, however, another event occurring in Chicago at the same time as the Exposition. It was none other than Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Albeit through different means, both Turner and Cody were constructing representations of the very recent past, representations that laid claims to historical accuracy. Scholarship, however, suffered a disadvantage in that by 1893, Cody had twenty years of experience over Turner. If this meeting between scholarship and popular representation signaled anything it was the transitive relationship between fact and fiction. More than any other phenomena in American History, expansionism in general and the West in particular, served as a blueprint for the translation of history into myth. History no longer occupied the judgment seat with respect to fiction but would have to actively compete and measure itself against such popular representations as dime store novels and Grade “B” movies. Taken together, history and fiction have simply become “the past.” It is no longer a matter of choice between the real one or the one in the movies, but grappling with a combination of both.
In keeping with the patent craze generated by turn of the century industrialists, Woodrow Wilson should have trademarked his expression, “making the world safe for democracy.” It has been used as justification for every major military intervention of this century from World War I to the Persian Gulf War. Were Wilson’s statement to take the form of an ideological Frankenstein, it would most certainly have looked like John Wayne (1907-1979). When someone is referred to as an “American Hero” they are more than likely being measured against a set of values and characteristics ascribed to Wayne. Although he developed a cowboy/soldier persona that would become inseparable from his personality off-screen, it was only through portrayal that Wayne defined the American hero. A hundred or so years too young to have been a cowboy, and never having served in the military, Wayne’s profession was the perfection of a persona that linked the United States frontier past to its Cold War ideology. From the Alamo, to Iwo Jima, to the jungles of Vietnam, Wayne’s film career chronicles the transition of the frontier from the First to the Third World. As a screen hero, Wayne not only secured our fate from the savage Indians, he then delivered the blessings of American freedom to a world threatened with fascism and later with communism. John Wayne was more than a movie star. He was a phenomena. Not only did Wayne genuinely believe his roles in that his characters’ convictions simultaneously doubled as his convictions personally and the nation’s conviction publicly, but the nation also genuinely believed his roles. Following the release of The Sands of Iwo Jima in 1949, General Douglas MacArthur in a speech delivered to the American Legion Convention declared that Wayne represented “the American serviceman better than the American serviceman himself.” Wayne’s association with military virtue would be formally cemented when, upon his death in 1979, he was issued a Congressional medal. By 1968, however, with the release of The Green Berets, disillusionment with the John Wayne myth had set in as the Vietnam War made apparent the realities of war. In fact, John Wayne Syndrome was the name applied by medical psychologist to feelings of guilt and grief experienced by veterans when they responded to battlefield conditions with a normal mix of fear and bravery rather than the qualities attributed to the perfect soldier.
Given that we are well over two decades away from the circle of irony surrounding the John Wayne myth, Dingle’s cookie jars are under no obligation to reiterate the tragedy of a fallen icon. If anything, the humor in this piece can be likened to the porcelain sculptures of Jeff Koons. In her use of repetition, however, a more interesting comparison can be drawn with Andy Warhol. Whether they were people—Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mao—or products—Coca-Cola, Brillo Pads, and Campbell’s Soup—Warhol secured the foreclosure of meaning through the repetition of an image. In Warhol’s work the sign suffers an inescapable fate like the hero in a Greek tragedy. The tragedy in Warhol’s silkscreened pantheon, however, has less to do with the content and more to do with the maintenance of an always already known image. There is an inevitability to Elvis’ unleashing a revolver from his hip, to Marilyn’s pucker, and finally to Jacqueline Kennedy’s mourning the assassination of her husband.
While this inevitability is often interpreted by critics of Warhol as a sense of nihilism or anomie, for Dingle, this sense of inevitability ultimately gives way to counter-myth. It is a long distance from the silvery screen to the top of the fridge, but Dingle understands that the myth of hypermasculinity and patriotism represented by John Wayne can only be countered by equally silly myths regarding femininity and domesticity. John Wayne never sold Mary Kay Cosmetics nor did he serve in the military. His portrayal of the perfect soldier, however, makes him just as susceptible to being depicted in pink fatigues as it does green.
From Cowboy to Green Beret, John Wayne embodied the realpolitik form of this nation’s expansionist ideology. Expansionism, however, has had many forms. As a set of beliefs that literally guided the direction of the country, expansionism is fundamental to how we understand ourselves in a real and mythic sense. Although it was not until 1912 with the admission of Arizona and New Mexico into the Union that the United States formally closed its frontiers, expansionism has actually been part of the ideological fabric of this country since the Pilgrims. In its religious guise, expansionism assumed a messianic sense of predestination i.e. America as Eden, God’s Paradise. In short, America was the site of salvation, the site where human relations to God were able to be perfected.
Based on the Priss paintings one could easily surmise that Dingle has the devil in her. Dingle’s struggles with Jesus, however, are nothing new within the history of Protestant Christianity, especially as practiced in the United States. My Struggles with Jesus, which features six hand-crafted Jesus rag dolls squeezed together on a couch, and a seventh doll in process, actually relates most concretely to the American theological circle known as Transcendentalism. Based in Boston between the years 1830 and 1860, the Transcendentalists were part preachers, part philosophers, and part poets, with their leading exponents being Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882 and Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862. As with many things in the United States, Transcendentalism began as a revolt. This time, however, the target was historical Christianity. Although it had many aspects, each held with different degrees of conviction by its members, Transcendentalism at its core was the search for an authentic religious experience. Ignoring the rites and explanations of traditional Christian dogma, Transcendentalists sought spiritual truth through an immediate encounter with reality. As Emerson announced in the title of one of his essays, it was to be “an original relation with the universe.”
Whereas Transcendentalism did not challenge the teachings of Jesus, it did challenge his authority. For the transcendentalists the miracles performed by Jesus—healing the lame and the blind, walking on water, changing water into wine, feeding a multitude from a limited supply of bread and fish, and raising Lazarus from the dead—were not the basis for believing his words to be those of God. Jesus’ teachings were in and of themselves enough to stir a sense of spirituality. If anything served as proof of God’s presence and beneficence, it was to be found in the world around us and not the miracles. With an emphasis placed more squarely on the teachings rather than the miracles, Jesus became more man than God. In one essay, Emerson even refers to Jesus simply as “Friend of Man,” as opposed to “Son of God.” Rather than rely on interpretation of scripture, Transcendentalism favored the primacy of private inspiration derived from following the example of Jesus in “humility, reverence, sobriety, gentleness, charity, forgiveness, fortitude, resignation, faith, and active love.” Inherent to Transcendentalism was a utopian idealism that could be realized through good works prompted by love of God. Far from the Calvinist conception of predestination, the Transcendentalist struggle was for an ideal set of relations between God, man and nature; an ideal that was attainable in this world.
What defines Dingle’s struggle for an individual interpretation of Jesus is no different from that of a century and a half ago. The question still remains: in a violent and violently changing world, how can the teachings of Jesus be understood and applied in a meaningful and relevant manner? For the Transcendentalists the answer was the incorporation of new ideas from European philosophy and Eastern religions. While Dingle would not rule this out, she would argue that Transcendentalism represents one out of the many forms Jesus has assumed from person to person, period to period and place to place. Given this degree of relativity, not to mention the scope and scale of contemporary social dilemmas, it is hard to imagine what questions and tasks we could put before Jesus now that we have usurped his piety. Perhaps this is the reason his gaze is blank and his spine limp.
Dingle’s work will always provoke a chuckle. But beneath the laughter inspired by works such as her presidents in drag we still ask ourselves in all earnestness, is it true what they say about Herbert Hoover, or Harold Washington for that matter? By this token, fiction gets stranger as it journeys toward the truth and this is the charm of many of Dingle’s narratives. Dingle’s work makes it hard to judge whether history is cyclical or regressive. It hardly matters. What is more important is that we pay close attentions to the clues between the politicians’ sound-bites. Be it new or old, there is always some myth at work. Should Dingle’s images make it to the White House perhaps we will find ourselves relieved at finally having a choice in which myths we want to believe.