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How 1980s Aesthetics Influence Contemporary Artists Today

Devon Tsuno, "Invasive Horticulture (Los Angeles River)," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.
Devon Tsuno, "Invasive Horticulture (Los Angeles River),"; 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

About five years ago, UC Riverside Culver Center and Sweeney Gallery curator Jennifer Frias says she saw a kind of resurgence of 1980s music, movies, and fashion. Immediately she wondered: "What about 1980s art?" In her new exhibit "Second Wave: Aesthetics of the 80s in Today's Contemporary Art," Frias examines the connection between the aesthetics of a group of artists who were born and raised in the 1980s and the work of some of that decade's signal artists and movements. "I thought it would be interesting to see if there was any correlation with process that contemporary artists are [currently] using to respond to the 1980s aesthetic based on styles and movements in contemporary art at that time," she says.

Frias cites the widespread appropriation of images, a renewed interest in painting after the conceptualism of the 1970s ushered in the dematerialization of art, the rise of graffiti art and various political and social matters including gay activism and identity politics as important influences on the aesthetics of art of the 1980s.

Brian Bress, "Clayhands," 2014 (left); "Clayhands X2," 2014 (right).
Brian Bress, "Clayhands," 2014 (left); "Clayhands X2," 2014 (right).   

Indeed, the 1980s were witness to an increasing engagement between art and popular culture. The 2012 show "This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s," which debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and was organized by Helen Molesworth, then the Barbara Lee Chief Curator at ICA/Boston and now the chief curator at MOCA, cited the artists who became prominent in the 1980s as the first generation of artists who grew up with a television in the home.

Frias says many of the artists in "Second Wave" told her they were influenced by "MTV, Saturday morning cartoons, and product branding." Product branding, she says, "was so extreme and prominent, like with Nike and Calvin Klein commercials and perfumes, that's the way advertising was done, whether it was in print or on television, there were subliminal messages that were embedded within the visuals that enticed the viewer."

Conrad Ruiz, "Knuckles," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.
Conrad Ruiz, "Knuckles," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

 

Mark Batongmalaque, "Don't Say Yes," 2015. | | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.
Mark Batongmalaque, "Don't Say Yes," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

Another influence clearly is late night cable television where the message was not so subliminal. Mark Batongmalaque's "Don't Say Yes" (2015), a sculptural work of silhouetted figurative outlines cut from ultra light MDF, hangs in the atrium of the Culver Center. Abstract geometric patterns are projected onto the panels, which are shaped like reclining female figures, revealing the recognizable shape of a breast, a woman leaning on her elbow, or the curve of her hips. In addition to referencing Neo-Geometric Conceptualism, an art movement from the 1980s, the patterns also suggest "the interference patterns of cable TV," Frias says. "Mark mentioned," she continues in a note of humor, relating a story that many men in their thirties or forties may find familiar, "that when he was a teenager sometimes he was 'lucky enough' to watch a porn channel through the scrambled television signal. He was also influenced by movies like "Tron" that were about technology ushering in a new utopia."

Technology also plays a prominent role for Valerie Green, who examines the slick, glossy images and surfaces produced for mass consumption. Green, whose work recalls influences as varied as Neo-Geometric Conceptualism and Op art, creates enlargements on the screen of her iPhone with droplets of liquid scattered on the surface, resulting in a distortion in the patterns of pixilation and magnified digital images captured photographically. Printed on thin aluminum panels using dye sublimation, the resulting objects, "Screen Cleaner IMG1788" and "Screen Cleaner IMG6359" (both 2015), are sleek, seductive and utterly modern.

Valerie Green, from the "Screen Cleaners" series. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.
Valerie Green, from the "Screen Cleaners" series. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

 

Valerie Green, "Screen Cleaner IMG1788." | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.
Valerie Green, "Screen Cleaner IMG1788." | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

Ryan Perez also adopts the gloss of consumer products. Frias says, "His work is in response to the street racing subculture that he grew up around in Rialto and Fontana in the late 1980s." Perez even uses auto enamel paint on the frame of his work "Transmission (King Blue)" (2014). He shares with Devon Tsuno a fascination with the Ryan Gosling movie "Drive" (2011), which, according to Frias, evokes the ethos of 1980s street racing culture. Tsuno noted that the L.A. River, the setting of his triptych "Invasive Horticulture (Los Angeles River)" (2015), was also the backdrop, along with many of the bridges crossing the river, of "Drive." For Tsuno, "going to the L.A. River was the closest he and his family came to nature," Frias says.

The influence of the movies is evident in D. Hill's multifaceted performance, video and photo work, "TRANS" (2014-2015), which evokes work from the 1980s while being absolutely contemporary. "I thought of Cindy Sherman and her 'Complete Untitled Film Stills,' where she invented a persona that relied on facial expressions and gestures backed by tableau or movie-style sets to tell a story. With Hill, what you have, front and center, is the change of clothing and the expression and gestures that are creating a narrative," Frias says. In "TRANS," which is cinematic and seems influenced by music videos and the current golden age of television, Hill interrogates stereotypes of masculinity and femininity as well as playing up the iconic image of the American gangster.

D. Hill, "TRANS" film still, 2014-2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.
D. Hill, "TRANS" film still, 2014-2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

"Second Wave" overwhelmingly reflects an engagement with material and craft alongside complex imagery, ideas and popular culture and art historical references. Brian Bress, Jordan Christian, Gregory Eberhardt, Pearl Hsiung, Conrad Ruiz, Kristofferson San Pablo, Emilio Santoyo and Tsuno are all engaged in painting in some form. Chet Glaze's exquisite objects draw on painting, fiber and carpentry, and Shizu Saldamando draws on traditional paper and surprising found bed sheets substrates. Frias says, "About every 20 years, something from the previous cycle comes back to be modified in some way. I wanted to do this show to get the point across that there are styles and aesthetics that artists come across, that even though they didn't know at the time they were going to use those styles, [they] become really embedded in their practices. It is something that was inherited in those formative years, and now, we're coming full circle, embedding it into the work we're making now."

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"Second Wave: Aesthetics of the 80s in Today's Contemporary Art," installation view. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.
"Second Wave: Aesthetics of the 80s in Today's Contemporary Art," installation view. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

 

Shizu Saldamando, "Sandy Switchblade," 2013 (left); "Joel with Grand Legacy," 2013 (right).
Shizu Saldamando, "Sandy Switchblade," 2013 (left); "Joel with Grand Legacy," 2013 (right).

 

D. Hill, "TRANS," 2014-2015. Installation detail. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.
D. Hill, "TRANS," 2014-2015. Installation detail. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

 

Kristofferson San Pablo, "Punk Dancing For Self Defense, Part 2," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.
Kristofferson San Pablo, "Punk Dancing For Self Defense, Part 2," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

 

"Second Wave: Aesthetics of the 80s in Today's Contemporary Art," installation view. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.
"Second Wave: Aesthetics of the 80s in Today's Contemporary Art," installation view. | Photo: Courtesy of the UCR Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts.

 


 

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