Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the sizzling streets of Chelsea, not expecting to discover something particularly notable in the typical "summer show" venues but nevertheless making the rounds, out pops a truly unique and memorable exhibition that is shaking things up. "Birth of a Legend," recent works by Cameron Gray, the Venice, California-based artist, recently opened at Mike Weiss Gallery, is commanding a great deal of attention and with good reason.
Gray has spent the better part of the last decade assembling disparate pictorial fragments into a grid of painted squares that have been meticulously crafted from miniature two inch four-sided compositions on board. Each puzzle piece needed to fit precisely in order to build a much bigger picture that eventually formed a curious collage of a recognizable work, like a Warhol dollar sign or a Lichtenstein classic portrait. These attractive and amusing visual exercises were a valuable experience that taught the artist about the rewards of having patience and the fine art of foraging literally around the world in order to compile something pretty amazing. Everything he learned in the past, it seems, was simply a dress rehearsal for this show at Mike Weiss, which coincided with the gallery's tenth anniversary.
In this exhibition, the artist takes a deliberate quantum leap from his past strict geometrical neo-cubist inspired arrangements to a stunning examination and idiosyncratic salute to the collage aesthetic. The ingenuity shown here follows in the tradition of great innovators who were initially controversial, yet transformed into those who made history. Gray joins a special fraternity of inventors that have harnessed the internet's limitless imagery inventory, which became a de facto and integral extension of his studio and allows him to acquire a complex inventory of often bizarre images, painstakingly woven together and loaded with sexual innuendo, in hilariously nutty situations a la "Mission Impossible," with strange people doing really odd things and laced with a left-footed goofiness so over the top that it becomes a serious contender for Ripley's Believe It or Not! His "found objects"--also known as "internet trash"--from the World Wide Web are cleverly mixed, altered, spliced, diced, electrified, homogenized and usually animated to boot, and, like a seasoned carnival pitchman, he continues throwing unexpected, hypnotic curve balls at the viewer that become home runs. Following Picasso's historic lead, where the artist added a new dimension to painting by attaching a single piece of newspaper to his canvas, Gray, no stranger to the challenges of collage, has found a convincing additional step forward to the ongoing history of this artistic discipline, which has caught the art world off guard.
Early pioneers like Braque, Ernst, Arp, Duchamp and Schwitters felt compelled to find another aspect of pictorial compositions that also adopted the French word coller--to paste--and expanded the topography of a work's flat surface until a painting became more sculptural. This morphed into the technique called assemblage, from another French word: assembler--to collect. The development of the camera introduced a new level of reality to two-dimensional art. As photographs (and now video) became more widely available, artists generated a new method called montage (an important aspect of Gray's work), once again from the French monter--to mount. Eventually and predictably, this process sprouted into photomontage, which was invented by the German artist John Heartfield in the early twentieth century and later followed with assemblage made popular by Joseph Cornell, the real master of the technique. Art made from car parts (Chamberlain), wood scraps (Nevelson), drugs (Tomaselli) and a shark (Hirst), all owe their audacity for change to the pioneers who were exploring provocative new territory outside of a traditional palette. It didn't take long for artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Ray Johnson and Romare Bearden to completely engulf their work in the collage aesthetic, which continues today through the assemblage work of artists like Richard Prince, Llyn Foulkes and Tony Berlant. The artist who somehow elegantly assimilated all of the above and who is aligned most closely with Cameron Gray is the brilliant and unsurpassed photomontage Dada-Surrealist, Hannah Höch, and her friend, Raoul Hausmann. Step by step, layer by layer, artists continued to add new and often shocking dimensions with fragments of novel materials, which ultimately developed into a polished and acceptable format that welcomed innovation and controversy. At this moment in history, Gray has strategically put his foot through an invisible, historic curtain (but not in his mouth) that like his predecessors, armed with an explorer's compulsion, bravado and a burning ambition, literally changes everything.
Gray's gargantuan video collage installation is mesmerizing, holding your gaze with its pulsating electronic vignettes and drawing you closer for a surprising examination of uncommon voyeuristic phenomena. The largest work in the show, I Have a Feeling I Shall Go Mad...., an all-encompassing 12-foot wide installation comprised of twenty-seven monitors, is a flashback to Times Square meets Japanese animation on an alien ship painted in Day-Glo colors. Thousands of moving electronic collage squares overlap each other and compete for your attention like a rare, crazed and determined Tasmanian bird doing a ferocious mating dance with pre-meditated intentions in mind. It's Been a Series of Unforeseen and Unexpected Circumstances Outside of My Control, a quite amazing construction, is an epic 7-foot-tall pin bricolage; 3,000 photographic images call out for your notice, selling their dubious wares and strutting their eccentric stuff. In another part of the exhibition, four pinned-to-the-wall, cordless "electronic" posters of heartthrob pop stars are displayed at the entrance to the gallery, requiring the talents of a young Sherlock Holmes and his knack for uncovering clues to solve the mystery of how they were constructed.
This is a perfectly pleasurable show, with each wall presenting another inventive "step" on a magical neon ladder that Gray, a former stand-up comedian, is swiftly climbing with deadpan enthusiasm. One part of the exhibition might be more suitable for the "Dining Out" section of The New York Times: Gray seems to enjoy playing with his food, in this case, a smorgasbord of plastic fake fare often illuminated by black lights, which he arranges to illuminate simple circular Arcimboldo-inspired smiley-face assemblages that incorporate items insinuating eyes (sausage patties), a frowning mouth (plastic hot dog), or two turkey dinners forming the eyes of one piece and a glazed, faux Jell-O mold for its nose. In this optical feast for the eyes with handmade, circular stage sets appropriate for a classic movie like "Picnic," everybody gets enough to eat and no doubt will come back for seconds. A scene in David Byrne's classic movie, "True Stories," also comes to mind, in which the nutty dad offers his astonished family a quick overview of commerce at work; looking down on the dining table, asparagus becomes railroad tracks, plates emulate service centers and the whole tabletop dinner becomes a hilarious, illustrated aerial view of industry on parade.
Cameron Gray has taken a fortunate cue from the developmental pilgrimage of modern masters to explore an amazing new extension of collage and assemblage that converges in an unforgettable presentation, giving credence to the show's title of "Birth of a Legend" as a palatable, mythic description and--arguably the most photographed exhibition currently in Manhattan--something to write home about.
Cameron Gray, Birth of a Legend, continues at Mike Weiss Gallery through August 17. For more information, please visit http://www.mikeweissgallery.com/