Disneyland Cosmopolitanism: Abelow, Wiebe and Attwood
The two most recent shows at Disneyland Paris demonstrate something brilliant—but before we get to what that something is, let’s talk about the work.
Disneyland Paris’ recently concluded exhibition, Rats, surveyed a little over a decade of Joshua Abelow’s work, with a collection of only six small paintings and a small “Charlie Brown” postcard. Abelow is a painter based in Harris, New York. He has exhibited prolifically and widely since the early 2000s, both in the US and internationally, often in more unconventional galleries (see Freddy, Abelow’s own gallery, Kunsthalle Wichita, and Disneyland Paris no less). The subject of Abelow’s work orbits around a reappearing set of images and motifs. He explores these motifs by repainting them in varying tones and colours, reconfiguring simple line drawn designs, and repeating particular words. Yet Abelow does not seem interested in any Pop art idea of reproduction—these aren’t “commodities” in a Pop sense. The difference is slight, but important: Abelow is interested in reworking, not reproducing; rethinking, not replicating. In this, Abelow’s search for something new is evident.
I imagine Abelow’s commitment to these motifs wedded to a curiosity to see what yields from a different arrangement, an alternated combination. However, when I first looked at the work online, prior to seeing the paintings at Disneyland Paris, I was less than interested. Initially, I thought I’m not going to like these—too flat, too illustrative, too straightforward for me! Simply too simple for my taste. Upon seeing the work in person, I realised I was, at once, somewhat right, but mostly wrong. I was immediately struck by the material quality of the paintings: the surfaces are gritty and rough, appealing to our sense of touch. I felt as though the surfaces beckoned me to run my hand over them. Far from being simple, the paintings are visually compelling in this way. The symbols, too, are more playful than I first perceived—a sort of harlequin imagery, mixed with a personal iconography and folk art sensibility.
LOVE HATE (2012) Untitled (Hand) (2013) Witch (2014) captured my attention. These three curious, illustrative paintings are playfully sinister. A mischievous witch is depicted in profile, and line drawn hands bearing smiling faces float ominously on muted blue-greys and browns. Looking through Abelow’s previous exhibitions, his commitment to drawing emerges. His CV is peppered with exhibitions consisting solely or mostly of drawings: Monday Afternoon Club (2006), Relax (2014), Drawings (2016), Drawings Drawings (2018), Radioactive Drawings (2020) his recent exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wichita, in which Beavis and Butthead appear reimagined as if they were the subjects of Matisse or Jean Cocteau’s drawings in the mid-1930s. Abelow’s refined linework yields an interesting tension—on the one hand, his draftsmanship that appears to pull inspiration from art historical precedents (Picasso’s Vollard Suite comes to mind), and on the other hand, his subject matter which relishes in the more “trashy” aspects contemporary culture. This particular work is at the fulcrum of two (often competing) sensibilities. But Abelow does not rest here.
Gazing around from the witchy illustrations to the hard-edge abstractions, one quickly realises they are not “hard edged” at all. The borders where two colours meet bleed and flicker into one another. These two differing series together produce a certain mood. Abelow’s work might be considered a kind of twenty-first century suburban folk art. Perhaps it is the muted tones, and seemingly sun-bleached colours that appear to me as the iconology of the outer suburbs.
Following Abelow’s Disneyland Paris show is the current Graham Wiebe exhibition Works on Paper. Wiebe lives and works in Victoria, BC, Canada. Works on Paper builds on some of the themes and imagery of Wiebe’s exhibition Antidote, held at Jargon Projects in Chicago last year. For Antidote, Wiebe presented an antagonistic engagement with wellness and self-help fads. The images in Work on Paper continue this exploration. Wiebe presents three large inkjet prints—two depicting handfuls of activated charcoal pills, and one penetrating portrait of a woman in an activated charcoal facemask. The prints have had their edges burnt off, shaped into snowflake figurations. Wiebe’s three prints strike squarely between the comical and darkly absurd—the images of activated charcoal products, the burned archival paper (now also “activated charcoal”?), the snowflakes (perhaps us?) hungry for “wellness”. As with Abelow’s playfully sinister witches, Wiebe evokes a wry humour and uneasiness in these images, reaching an oddly satisfying crescendo.
So, what was that brilliant something? Disneyland Paris has achieved a kind of “cosmopolitanism” along Hickey Street, Ardross. It is the kind Nikos Papastergiadis proposes—a rhizomatic understanding of how the local and global (co)exist simultaneously, both entangled and distinct, suspended in contradiction. At Disneyland Paris, geographic divides dissolve, aesthetic links and visual themes emerge in work from disparate locations. New York based Joshua Abelow proceeds perfectly from Akira Akira & Shannon Lyons’ joint show, and so too is the case now with Graham Wiebe, from Victoria, Canada. Asking Attwood about this seemingly global (or “cosmopolitan”) view, Dave responds candidly, ‘if it seems like I am trying to attract these international artists, it’s unintentional. They’re people who I share a mutual interest with in the work’. I pose to Attwood that perhaps his pragmatic approach is realising something not normally seen in Perth—a distinct lack of parochialism in dealing with international artists. Often, shows that feature the work of international artists seem to pit the artist’s “internationality” against, or in dialogue with, the WA artist’s “locality”; for example, PICA’s Love in Bright Landscapes, which considered ‘Perth and Los Angeles as comparative case studies, bringing together a selection of artworks made in reference to the characters, qualities and topographies of the two west coast cities’. Such comparisons inevitably urge one to compare and contrast. How many shows play off our isolated state (or State!), but then go on to counter this premise by suggesting ‘while we are “the most isolated city in the world”, our artists are not so different to those in [insert your city of choice]’—a truly hackneyed and parochial proposition.
At Disneyland Paris, Attwood achieves the opposite. Here, connections and distinctions are organically drawn between particular works and artists, not dogmatically. It is clearly left up to the viewer as to if any similarities or differences are present between shows (is it that the artist is from a different city, scene, school, milieu, or simply just doing something very different as an individual?). The absence of anything prescriptive encourages speculation, critical judgement, and the open possibility of going way off course with one’s thinking—a fabulous joy! How does this embody any of Papastergiadis’ ideas? The global and local exist simultaneously, in a rhizomatic network, rather than in binary opposition to one another. We are more aware than ever of our place as individuals in a global society. This awareness is often abstracted, confusing, or disorientating. Because these contradictions are difficult to comprehend in any meaningful way, they often go ignored or neglected. Perhaps due to Attwood’s understated approach (or even disregard for this cosmopolitan element), he has achieved it more thoroughly than many of his counterparts who appear to still be struggling to “put Perth on the cultural map”. Attwood speculates “I wonder whether people say, well Disneyland doesn’t do anything for local artists. Why is it showing this stuff from Canada?” In reality, the complicated, cosmopolitan, web of connections that Attwood is conjuring at Disneyland Paris is perhaps the most potent antidote one can concoct to combat the parochial isolation blues.
Images courtesy of Disneyland Paris. Photography by artdoc.