Bruce Helander - Mars Landing
Artist Robert Mars’ new series of handsome, graphics-inspired images, opening April 13 at DTR Modern in SoHo, offer a compelling and exciting visual dialogue that takes its DNA from iconic imagery in American popular culture. Like the pioneer inventors before him, particularly Rauschenberg, Rosenquist and Warhol, Mars discovers, researches and manipulates pop imagery into his own recognizable format, which utilizes iconic American symbols, particularly from advertising and film. The artist also is a de facto archivist of newspaper and magazine headlines and hand-painted signage that, sadly, is disappearing from the urban landscape and printed page, unceremoniously traded for the instant gratification of electronic pixels on a computer screen. In a curious irony, Mars has taken on the role of a historian whose research is abstracted and laid down into the parameters of a square canvas that gives viewers a modern day retrospective of contemporary images from our cultural heritage. Like the shelves of a bibliophile, which are stacked with publications of all kinds, Mars literally gathers his foundations of layered materials from a variety of sources, including paper bags and other collage ingredients. This compelling technique allows for ample, fertile ground cover in which the artist “plants” the seeds that mature into a blooming composition filled with strong, bright colors and shapes. The surface texture that is painstakingly developed into a kind of patchwork quilt of paper fragments allows a compelling vintage visual atmosphere and presents a duality of subjects, from the old to the new, both historic and present day; these additional layers increase significantly the edgy balancing act that Mars creates. He also should be credited as a modern day explorer, keeping alive the spirit of the 1950s and ‘60s by combining and connecting popular images from our past, such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Queen Elizabeth, Audrey Hepburn and Bridget Bardot, and even classic cartoons and comic strip characters such as Bob’s Big Boy, Mickey Mouse, Superman and Batman.
In this exhibition, Robert Mars offers a new series of vibrant and familiar artworks consistent with his flair for hybrid documentation. His straightforward graphic style narrates an illustrated short story that allows his audience to make certain assumptions and connect to the fading landscape of our past. In this fresh new series, the artist continues to present striking, bold representations that refer to popular culture from Hollywood to Main Street, USA. Inherent in much of his work is the contemporary tradition of capturing and recreating forms that become art about art.
His latest series also skillfully incorporates the American stars and stripes in a variety of compositions, bringing to mind Johns’ famous flag paintings in encaustic and collage, which are perhaps the most iconic Americana symbol created in the art world by the most famous living artist today. Mars occasionally mixes up a substitute color like purple for the stripes and rearranges them into a vertical position. Among the pieces that possess a successful adaptation of content and style are his square paintings of recreated cartoon strips that have been substantially increased in size from
the original Sunday comics page, which, like Roy Lichtenstein, took advantage of Ben Day dot structures as an identifiable aesthetic element. In one painting, a fast thinking Batman delivers a comical “KWOP” with his right hand, exclaiming in a bubble, “Got to Put Everything I Have in a King-Size Sunday Punch!” These works recall the early experiments of Lichtenstein, who applied these familiar images directly onto canvas, ironically allowing his subject matter to be appropriated by other artists later on, particularly Richard Pettibone, who rose to fame by reducing the large scale of works by prominent artists to tiny, exacting, framed recreations that might fit comfortably in the bedroom of a prosperous mouse. Mars also takes us on a journey of subconscious duplication in his series of double and triple repeat images, a technique made famous by Warhol (see triple Elvis and double Marilyn). Another work with a central target shape, similar to the department store with the same name, brings to mind an homage to Jasper Johns’ famous collaged targets.
Robert Mars has put together an enjoyable exhibition that mixes memorabilia from our past, whether it is vintage cars or iconic works from recognized modern masters, and spins a stitched-canvas curve ball that blends the familiar and unfamiliar, the old and the new, into one glamorous common denominator.
Bruce Helander is an artist, the Editor-in-Chief of The Art Economist, and a frequent contributor to the style section of The Huffington Post. He is a White House Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and the former Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs of the Rhode Island School of Design.