“It’s 2015,” as our prime minister said last year, in perhaps the smuggest and most asinine statement of ideological derangement in the country’s history. So, it’s striking that Joe Becker‘s work seems so concerned with atemporality, if not outright apocalypse. There’s a distinction. The atemporal is indicative of the Unconscious of things, departing from any significant relationality beyond decomposition; images churning in the intestines of matter. Apocalypse fulfills time, bringing it to fruition and eradicating it; a baby with magical bathwater that dissolves it back into the fluids that created it. Or maybe Becker’s work isn’t concerned with this at all. We see rather two manners of congealment at play in his paintings, but a congealment that indicates part of a killing of time. Time is waste (life); art kills time.
Becker’s obsession with Flemish flamewars has modified over the years. He’s gone from miming Egbert II van Heemskerck, Cornelis Saftleven and their less obscure brethren to something resembling Breughel. Having graduated from small, caricaturish portraits of pop culture figures doing things they shouldn’t (ET by TMZ), he’s finally combined the motley crew of distinctive figures he’s created into an opulent apocalyptic image. His works are populated predominately by figures from the 1980-90s – WWF wrestlers, Jerry Springer guests, superheros, He-Men, Garbage Pail Kids, Gargamel, Muppets, McDonald’s characters, Rowsdower-like hosers and oleaginous strippers, etc. This litany of figurines from the painter’s childhood and adolescence are then suspended in time, and play out scatological fantasies in crumbling landscapes. In a different era, these would be profoundly moral images. Maybe they still are. Or they could just be kitsch, though kitsch, as one of its greatest theorists (Hermann Broch) argued, is basically evil, or more radically, the base of evil. It may not be for nothing that Becker has started casting the artist as the Dark Knight. Batman pops up twice in this exhibition. Once in the middle of a substantial canvas, wiling away his time painting Pizza the Hut at an easel while mayhem surrounds him. Another where he’s stripped down to plop out as a corpulent hoser dreaming of porn and surrounded by comic-con regalia, trackmarked drawers, a blow up doll and a random toilet.
Becker is not mocking the kitsch of the world. Which is not to say that the work isn’t humorous, but it is a macabre and grotesque humour – a form of satire whose object of scorn isn’t quite evident. As Jessica Burstein has said, “Satire suspends the question of intention, and that’s a real problem: does the author mean what he says? Satire muddies the waters of engagement because, to put it clearly, opinions will be offered because they work, because they function effectively, because they get the job done.” When intention is known, satire is destroyed. It becomes moralization. Moralization is easy. That’s why most of both pop and academic/art culture consist of it (and why people like John Oliver or Stephen Colbert aren’t satirists but propagandists). Satire has no social value because it is predicated on eliminating meaning. Though elaborately narrative, what the narrative is remains opaque. Unlike with Flemish art, there is no ready allegorical model to filter them through. What Becker is saying is utterly unclear, though it is highly tempting to imagine that his works are about a world that has gone full retard.
Yet, as a recently graduated cog from the academic machinery, Becker’s work is perhaps a reaction to the allegorical models of secular humanism. In a period when most of the art being manufactured by the state, the academy and their minions is bent on redeeming art for its social value, what is intriguing in his work, is its rejection of redemption. We’re in a toilet and you can flush it or flood it, but either way you’ll still end up in a sewer. There is quasi-holy status that maintains the hierarchy of art production in this country, manifest in its religious adherence to modes of ethical and social codification laid down in the rules of the grant system, the flagrant politicizing of art programmes, and, as fundamentally, by the artist-run centres and public galleries. In these avenues, they filter and reiterate the dogmas concocted by what Althusser used to call the ideological state apparatus but this is usually obfuscated under the moniker of ‘social justice’. To paraphrase the Chapman brothers, “Humanists hate toilets, but they love to be disgusted.” And this is part of why Becker has managed to slip himself into the aqueducts of the ideological apparatus. That Canada, and its art scene in particular, is populated by people with shit for brains who hardly amount to more than Happy Meal figurines, and that this only seems to escalate with each passing generation, is a message that probably needs repeating – at least for the sake of marginal sanity.
The canvases span two basic types: the panoramic and the still life, the former seemingly narrative and the latter a condensing of his figurative typologies. It is in these still lives that something really unique happens. Hacked up into bits and heaped back together. Becker’s still lives surprisingly possess something of the neurotic anxiety that ran through those of Cezanne, only now the flowers have been replaced by fragments of meat and industrial produce set against a hardline colour bisection. In both cases, there is less an arresting of time than a vivisection of it, as duration is evacuated to be scaled down to its gelatinous remainder as a spatial residue. While the still life is something artists, and lately (particularly) photographers, have obsessively returned to, he’s one of the few to foreground the fact that still lives are primarily about maiming the world for the sake of aesthetic gratification. The blendering of materials presented literalizes this to the point of idiocy. And this sort of boorish literacy is one of Becker’s key strengths. He has taken on the part of a Netherlandish Neanderthal.
Joe Becker’s BLACK KNIGHTS OF COCKAIGNE runs at the Patrick Mikhail Gallery from February 24 – March 26, 2016