Eleanor Heartney - Between Memory and Desire

Andy Warhol predicted that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. Today, it seems he was off by a measure of magnitude. On social media, images and commentaries whiz by incessantly while the Big Story of the day is already old news by the time it hits the headlines. “Friends” multiply while real relationships stagnate. Instantaneous “liking” replaces more protracted experiencing. Living at this accelerated pace takes its toll on organisms designed for a slower time. Which may be why there is such a fascination today with the vanishing world of mid century America. The popularity of retro fashion and furniture, the TV series Mad Men, and the Golden Age of Hollywood is symptomatic of a larger sense of loss.

Robert Mars taps into these feelings with paintings that mediate between memory and desire. He conjures a panorama of postwar America that owes as much to the fantasies of a country emerging triumphantly from decades of turmoil as it does to the actual conditions of a society where consumption and identity were becoming perilously intertwined. Mars’ sources are the very stuff of these dreams. He maintains a huge archive of vintage magazines and newspapers. Photographs of stars like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and James Dean, logos of products like Coca Cola, Marlboro cigarettes and Chanel No. 5 and news stories about seminal events from the death of JFK to the 1969 moon walk served as vehicles for bringing the American brand to the world.

In Mars’ hands, these become the basis for layered paintings that explore the lost glamour and the tarnished hopes of that era. He scans and enlarges his chosen images and prints them out on a photocopier that preserves their imperfections. Borrowing a technique pioneered by Robert Rauschenberg, he then transfers these images to hand crafted wood panels which have been prepared with painted grounds that evoke the patterns of flags, bulls eyes and minimalist stripes and dots. Combined with bits of actual collage from the same sources and occasional overlays of neon tubing, these works become meditations on a time that is at once tantalizingly recent and irretrievably distant.

Mars’ process of layering, transferring and collaging allows him to imbue these reminders of the elusive past with an undercurrent of irony. Best and Brightest takes a phrase associated with President Kennedy and attaches it to an advertising image of a bottle of Chanel no. 5 perfume. The tag line that runs across the bottom of the ad – “The most trusted name in Perfume” – resonates with a time when trust was a condition attached to both politics and advertising. A similar sentiment animates Gives you the Best. Here, this slogan is attached to an inspirational photo portrait of the soon to be assassinated President.

Running below the image, which is layered over a flag inspired pattern of red, white and blue, are the words “Captain America”. Conflating JFK and the popular comic book figure, Mars conjures the hero worship that continues to envelope memories of the Kennedy era. In another work, Kennedy’s beautiful wife Jackie, becomes an “American Classic”, as neon tubing reminiscent of the Coca Cola font captions her. In such works, the language of promotion appears equally effective, whether applied to political figures or commercial products.

Other works reveal how a sense of mastery, machismo and effortless glamour attached itself to the fictional icons of the era. In one painting, Sean Connery’s James Bond appears in quadruplicate, surrounded by symbols of a hedonistic lifestyle that now, in our more politically correct era, seem anything but exemplary. In another, Superman blasts through a target, as a small collaged text taken from a deodorant ad in an old Playboy magazine promises that he “protects against all elements.”

With other works Mars reminds us that movie stars often serve as surrogate symbols of our idealized selves. During the decade in question, stars were infused with an indefinable tinge aura of danger and glamour that has all but dissipated today. In place of larger than life heroes, we now have neurotic celebrities cut down to size by paparazzi and social media. By contrast, in Full Time Pleasure, James Dean becomes the epitome of cool (or as the cigarette logo that accompanies this image spells it, Kool,) a judgment that is colored our own knowledge of the actor’s early death. Female icons from the 1950s and 60s have acquired equally ambiguous auras today. Marilyn Monroe, here accompanied by a Tiffany & Co. logo, exists now in a strange limbo between death and desire, her sex appeal oddly enhanced by the contemporary audience’s awareness of the emotional vulnerability that lead to her suicide.

Mars brings his meditations up to date with works which present contemporary symbols that feel culled from another era. Kate Moss is presented here as she appeared on the cover of Interview Magazine against a candy colored version of the British flag. In The Land of Cool, she becomes the embodiment of what Prime Minister Tony Blair in the 1990s termed “Cool Britannia”, a period of retro chic that looked back to the Carnaby Street era of London in the 60s. Like Marilyn Monroe, part of Moss’s appeal is linked to a sense of vulnerability and self destruction stemming from allegations of drug use.

And in Never Sleeps, Never Quits, a pair of skulls swathed in the colors of the American flag and set against a patterned spread of Louis Vuitton logos suggests the continuity between art worlds past and present. From one perspective, this work evokes Andy Warhol’s skull paintings, which revealed that even at its height, the Camelot era was haunted by intimations of death and dissolution. From another, these skulls point to similar obsessions today in the work of such Warhol descendents as Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami.

Born in 1969, Mars retrieves a world that he is too young to have experienced. His connection to postwar America is through its lingering traces in our collective imagination. Unlike the ephemeral images that bombard us daily, the vintage images he celebrates have embedded themselves deeply in the American psyche. They haunt us with their paradoxical combination of presence and absence, ever there and ever gone.

Eleanor Heartney is Contributing Editor to Art in America and Artpress and the author of many books and articles on contemporary art. Her awards include the College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather Award and the French government’s Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.