By James Kalm
Time was there were things that one just didn’t discuss in polite company: bodily functions, religion, and politics. Culture, at large, was supposed to filter out the grosser elements of life, but now we brandish our expertise in the latest and greatest outrages with pride. Aw shucks, doesn’t the obscene shock and awe us any more?
With this, his fifth solo show in New York featuring his animated sculpture, Peter Caine welcomes us into the new millennium. In his “George Washington Crossing the Delaware” (2006), a rollicking Marquis de Sade, with a face like a pile of gravel, straddles the bow of a battered rowboat. On his left sits an economy-sized jar of Vaseline next to a Bible open to Deuteronomy 23-24. His britches are open and his erect penis gushes an endless flow of simulated semen, while a silver-faced George Washington dangles Barbara Bush’s decapitated head over the frothing fountain, “I don’t know if I can fit that in my mouth. That’s naughty, so naughty, lip-smacking naughty,” squeaks Caine’s voice in his best First Lady imitation on an endless tape loop. Behind them, an aroused Honest Abe in blackface flails a Confederate flag over the portside gunwale. Other crew members on this macabre boating party are Dorothy from the “Wizard of Oz,” her head a cluster of flashing, gyrating gadgets, the axe-wielding Tin Woodsman, and Prince Whipple covered in a skin of Wheat Chex.
After “Crossing the Delaware,” we pass through a grove of tall, irregularly cylindrical columns called “Cabana Boys” that seem to mock the existential austerity of Giacometti and Brancusi, by twisting and jutting about like fabric-covered hoochie-coochie dancers.
“Rudolph and Friends” (2006) depicts our red-nosed hero as a dope-smoking reprobateridden by a stovepipe-hatted Lincoln brandishing a Hitler mask and a bloody, head-shot, chocolate-brown Shirley Temple with a popped-out eyeball. Rudolph’s sleigh is a ratty shopping cart filled with white fleece and trashcan pickings. Bringing up the rear is a green-lipped, hip-swiveling Rasta-Santa toking a huge joint and singing Christmas carols.
“USS Sperry” (2006) is the showstopper. Its black lights and fluorescent paint engulfs the entire back gallery, submerging the viewer in a cartoonish, radioactive lagoon. Glowing barrels imprinted with nuclear symbols litter the ocean floor between rock outcroppings and coral blooms. A frogman monitors atomic levels with a Geiger counter as schools of brilliant tropical fish swim among floating bubbles and anchor chains. This scene is based on Caine’s own experiences while serving in the Navy aboard the USS Sperry and, aside from a bug-eyed sea horse, should be viewed as a serious take on radioactive waste disposal by way of his trademark insouciance.
As a child, Peter Caine dreamed of three career paths. One was to be a veterinarian, which he’s pursued through a love of, and caring for, animals. Second was to be a stand-up comedian. He’d stay up late and tape comic routines from the “Johnny Carson Show,” then work up his own acts. Third, after visiting a Van Gogh exhibition, the child Caine knew he wanted to be an artist. (Poor Vincent. If he could see what his work inspired, he might well chop off his other ear.) A fourth career the artist might have picked is cinematographer. Each of his ambitious tableaux is designed with an eye for the dramatic. Characters are cast, the staging is blocked, actions programmed, costumes chosen, props selected, lighting devised, dialogue written and recorded. Smoke and bubble machines, electric balls, antique fans, and mechanical gizmos of all kinds lend the shebang the sensation of a grungy mad professor at work on some diabolical passion play.
After a couple of visits and a period of Kantian contemplation to clear my aesthetic pallet, I realized that much of this works staying power springs from a double-edged nostalgia. To one side are innocent memories of visiting Christmas window displays at places like Macy’s, featuring Santa and his elves making toys, Mrs. Claus baking cookies, and reindeer flying over rooftops. The darker, more magnetically disturbing side recalls the bawdy humor of bathroom joke books, or the pioneering, sexually explicit provocations published in Zap by the great underground comic artists S. Clay Wilson and R. Crumb at their most puerile. Childlike ingenuity and the desire to create a fantasy world slam up against an over-the-top indecency that rivets the viewer with an almost masochistic challenge to probe his or her levels of personal propriety.
Despite the popularity of high-tech art and “new media,” the realm of animatronic sculptural installations is still fairly small. Paul McCarthy and the brothers Jake and Dino Chapman come to mind, but Caine has claimed ignorance of both these oeuvres until six months ago. Although largely self taught, Caine shies away from the from the more naïve classification of “Outsider” artist preferring to be considered as a contemporary rather than folk artist, and like many of today’s TV pundits he knows which buttons to push and he’s merciless in confronting social norms, sacred cows and the overly sensitive looking to be insulted.
The recently closed Dada exhibition at MoMA, with its rugged materials and abundance of repugnant subject matter, exposed one root of Caine’s anti-aesthetics. Pollock’s piss-like dribblings or Twombly’s fecal-like globs, which morphed during Proto-Pop into Peter’s Saul’s garish cartoon heads, might be another. Satirizing racial stereotypes has been acceptable when it comes from the studios of established African American artists like Robert Colescott or Michael Ray Charles, but what kind of response can we expect when these jibes are posited by a white guy? Beyond that there is a quaint folksiness from the heartland quality, like listening to the grizzled local eccentric at a truck stop whose caffeinated rants begin to bare striking similarities to the deconstructivist ideas of Adorno and Derrida.
Among the questions taunting the viewer is whether Caine is a cutting-edge transgressive bad-boy, tweaking both the middle class and intelligencia, while also making a mess of art market cordiality, or a wacky overly energetic hayseed with a perverted sense of what sophisticated humor entails? Whether the world beyond the precincts of Williamsburg is ready to validate Caine’s vision, who can tell. Meanwhile, we can amuse our selves by taking bets on whether the avant-garde’s covenant with unbridled creative expression trumps its current commitment to the politically correct.