“I was installing a show in L.A. in September 2008 when the economy crashed,” artist Mark Dean Veca tells Co.Design. “Over the next year everything seemed to become more and more dismal, and the perception I’d held since birth of U.S. preeminence started to slip away. It seemed like so many of our institutions were so corrupt that we would never recover.”
The world is still reeling from and righting itself after the effects of the new millennium’s Great Recession, and despite its wide-ranging, largely destructive impact, Veca was quick to find twisted inspiration in the collapse. Using “the decline of the ‘American Dream’” as leitmotif, he began producing paintings that addressed this juxtaposition of prosperity and decay head-on; Made For You and Me is the resulting exhibition, on display now at New York’s Cristin Tierney gallery.
The title comes from a line in Woody Guthrie’s folksy standard “This Land Is Your Land,” which was itself a critical response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Veca pushes the criticism in a visual direction, seen through the somewhat distorted lens of his particular brand of Sinister Pop, or, what he refers to as “biomorphic pictorial abstraction.”
“Once the theme for the show had become established in my mind, I started looking for images in popular culture that could represent the institutions I wanted to explore,” he says of the icons subjected to his skeptical, keen eye.
Take Pennybags II, an evolution of the first painting Veca did for the series. The familiar form of Mr. Monopoly (real name: Rich “Uncle” Pennybags) becomes a pimpled, pustuled character, his dysmorphic composition rendered in such a way that the old gent appears to be rotting from the inside out. It’s uncomfortable to look at, but it’s almost more difficult to look away.
Another vintage visage to get the grotesque treatment is Reddy Kilowatt, a wide-eyed, big-smiled mascot who promoted and encouraged electricity usage to midcentury folks. In response to Hurricane Sandy’s destructive path across the Eastern Seaboard last year, which exposed “how dependent we are on electricity and its contribution to global warming,” Veca transformed Reddy into something almost menacing–a Looney Toons misfit reminiscent of the illustrations of Mad Magazine stalwart Basil Wolverton. Last year’s presidential debates–and the media frenzy surrounding them–also kept Veca busy. “I’m not anti-American by a long-shot, but our government isn’t looking so squeaky-clean as of late.”
It’s not a particularly uplifting exhibition, to be sure, but Veca’s bold and brightly hued confrontation of what he sees as our nation’s faded glory comes with a glimmer of hope. When asked for his final thoughts on the body of work, he offers a quote from Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu: “Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return.”