Camille Rose Garcia’s second solo exhibition at Jonathan LeVine, “Ambien Somnambulants,” just might be the perfect exhibition for adults who like their fairy tales served with a hefty dose of quasi-nihilistic sociopolitical observations. Garcia, who is increasingly considered one of the leading ladies of the Low Brow movement, is known as much for her glossy finishes as her cultural criticism. As in her first exhibition here in 2006, “Subterranean Death Clash,” the artist paints a series of panels that warn of the planet’s imminent destruction using frilly fairy tale characters, decorative design and a spattering of glitter.
Innocent and insidious at once, Garcia weaves a story of a witch with poisonous apples who casts a spell on languid-looking swans, Bambi-esque deer, wolves, bats and butterflies. The illustrated characters are painted flatly against colorful backgrounds of splatters and drips, as if they have been collaged by a morbid Disney-dropout, or a highly-skilled teenager armed with a set of sparkly stickers and a can of spray paint.
In the 48 by 48 inch painted wood panel The Sleepwitch, one of Garcia’s signature sad-eyed, dark haired girls is metamorphosed into a flying witch with butterfly wings and a worm-like body. Set against a background of dripping and lightly blended blocks of color, the witch hovers over bottles that pour red liquid onto apples, down-turned flowers, black mushrooms, and a swan that is crying bright orange tears in a swirling pattern. The forms seem to be stuck onto the colorful background as in the flat-based field of design, without regard to depth of field or perspective.
The sociopolitical content of the series is not obvious at first glance and the work definitely has the potential to come off as purely fluff and gloss given its sheer “prettiness.” In her artist statement, Garcia describes the series as telling the story of, “a powerful witch [that] delivers apples poisoned with sleep elixir to the Ambien Somnambulents, a sleepwalking army of fancy dressed revelers, innocent and content in their dream world of complete denial.” The artist intentionally veils her dark subject matter with beauty in order to provide an entrance to difficult issues such as the destruction of the environment, abuses of the pharmaceutical industry, self-medication, escapism and an ultimately destructive conquest for shiny objects. Black, oil-like drips surround the edges of several pieces, providing both a stylized frame for the composition and a reference to the world’s dangerous addiction to petroleum. Oversized Ambien pills are cradled by swans and cartoon deer lick apples that leak blood red poison. Underneath the glitter, there is chaos.
Garcia’s first solo show at LeVine featured the same bottles of poison, cartoon swans, black drips and a fairy tale about the destruction of the planet. There are a few welcome changes in the new show, however, that demonstrate some artistic growth. For one thing, Garcia’s established palette of dark grays, smoky purples, and muddy blues is now integrated with a shockingly bright arsenal of day-glow oranges, sea-foam greens and candy-apple reds. The compositions are more filled-out, detailed, and utilize space better than before, which could be seen as a progression from her previous method of creating a central figure with surrounding embellishments. The collage-effect is taken up several notches demonstrated by an intense layering of forms and glazes of paint combined with actual collaged pieces of wallpaper. Although her forms and subject matter remain the same, Garcia is experimenting with technique, color, and space.
Because of the overtly commercial nature of most Low Brow work, many of the artists rely too heavily on what’s worked for them and don’t show sizeable artistic growth. There is some evolution apparent in Garcia’s "Somnambulants", but the question remains whether it is enough to give her a place as an important and interesting artist both inside and outside of the Low Brow world. The visual seductiveness of her paintings far outweighs any political content, which is still too vague and cookie-cutter to be the most significant element in her work. And yet, the fact that there is any underlying message to her work is refreshing in a movement that tends to fixate on glossy surfaces and meaningless symbolism. Garcia may never deviate from the method of using beauty and pop to convey sociopolitical messages, and that just may be okay: her art is greatly aesthetically appealing and the content is generally accessible. If she keeps using the same forms and characters (sad-eyed girls, swans, deer, and more swans) to express these messages, however, her art will be in danger of dying from commercially-induced repetition. Garcia, as well as the rest of the Low Brow staples, still needs to prove that she is dedicated to the same level of artistic development as more conventional artists and not just the marketability of her style.