Cady Noland’s Bluewald continues her career long exploration of an American dream turned nightmare, mining the interstices between violence and celebrity, and producing a Warholian vision that bristles with the grit and barbarity by which the nation was founded. Invoking one of the most iconic photographs in history, Noland excerpts the image of Lee Harvey Oswald—the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy—portraying him in graphic detail, moments after he was struck by the .38 caliber bullet from Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby’s revolver that would ultimately kill him. Visually isolated, truncated from the waist down and enlarged to roughly twice the figure’s real life size, Noland magnifies not only Oswald’s scale but also the emotional and visceral impact of the original image, which she appropriated from journalist Robert H. Jackson’s Pulitzer prize winning photograph.
Employing the seductive graphic sensibility of Pop, Noland conscripts the viewer as a voyeur of violence—like the millions who witnessed the slaying unfold on live television—reflecting on America’s fetishizing of bloodshed and stardom. As Noland explains: “Figures like the one with bullet holes refer to clippings—the way celebrities are being treated in ‘scandal sheets’ like The Globe. They are manipulated in a very violent but child-like way. Blowing that up is a way of making the violence more manifest.” (eds., R. Anastas and M. Brenson, Witness to Her Art, New York, 2006, p. 159). Here, employing the phrase “blowing…up,” Noland alludes to both the shift in scale and the aesthetic, whose many perforated holes suggest an exploded object. The references to “violent” and “child-like manipulation” clearly apply to Oswald, who declared during a run in with reporters shortly before his death, “I didn’t shoot anybody….I’m just a patsy!” (Testimony of Harry D. Holmes, Warren Commission Hearings, Vol. VII, p. 297). Oswald, in many respects, epitomizes the nexus of celebrity and exploitation, representing a figure that unwillingly exchanged his life for eternal tabloid fame.
Bluewald is a perfectly eloquent art object that communicates profound insights through a limited vocabulary, showcasing Noland’s gift for extracting maximal meaning from minimal means. Every element of the work, including her choice of materials, appears rife with multivalent resonances. Noland selected aluminum as the support onto which she transposed the facsimile of Oswald via silkscreen. Metal embodies a signature material in Noland’s oeuvre, recurring in the form of beer cans, chain link fences and convalescent walkers- visual analogues for the frigidity and hardness intrinsic to the material. In the present context, aluminum also signifies elemental basis of the handgun itself.
Regarding her choice of material, Noland observed: “Metal is like a dead body. It is hard to get rid of. The highway is dotted with piles of metal and other materials. It’s difficult to tell if they have been dismantled, abandoned, or trashed (which I think we do to celebrities) if they are left over, or if they represent some project in progress” (op. cit., p. 157). Noland’s quote addresses themes of crime and profligate waste that pervade not only her artwork but the society that she critiques; forged from puritanical ideals and tempered by Manifest Destiny. The artist investigates the apparently American impulse to divide, conquer and seize as much of the world as possible, which has beget an insatiable appetite for consumption and a frightening surfeit of meaningless ‘stuff’. Noland once propounded the view that “metal is a major thing and a major thing to waste” (ibid.). Given the technology and resources required to produce the alloys that compose much of the iron and steel world around us, metal indeed represents a precious substance that arrived late in human history and is largely taken for granted today. From this perspective, Noland’s decision to scrap portions of the aluminum “body” represents a significant gesture that considers the extent to which the First World heedlessly squanders the quotidian marvels of modern life.
Like Mike Kelly’s Memory Boards, constructed from the detritus of overconsumption, Noland similarly employs accumulation as a metaphorical strategy throughout much of her work. For the exhibition, “How Soon is Now,” showcasing artworks from the Rubell collection, Noland assembled walls (and other minimalist structures) from Budweiser cans, transforming a symbol of American leisure—whose jingoistic red exterior harbors a product culled from the wheat fields of middle America—into a terrifying surface solely through accumulation. Continuing this cynical reappraisal of patriotic iconography, Bluewald presents Oswald gagged with a shred of the American flag, which corresponds to a prominent conspiracy theory that Oswald was ‘silenced’ by Ruby on behalf of organized crime and cleverly conflates “Old Glory” with repressing the free speech that it professes to defend.
Questioned in an interview by Bruce Hainley and John Waters as to whether she had ever been artistically censored, Noland replied affirmatively, relating an anecdote from a group show in the late 1980s. She explained that the gallerist had removed her artwork, which incorporated an American flag “hung limply from this pole by two oddly placed grommets” (ibid., p. 157), offering the stammering defense, “can’t attract the IRS…collectors offended…not THAT Cady” (ibid, p. 161). Her use of the star-spangled gag encourages the viewer to ponder the limitations to the “freedom of speech,” that supposedly constitutes an inalienable right. Noland addressed this subject explicitly in an interview with Michéle Cone, asserting that, “in the United States at present, we don’t have a language of dissension” (ibid, p. 155). Bluewald is her attempt to advance such a language, challenging the boundaries of permissible expression and the values of the status quo with the visual equivalent of a bullhorn.
The flag offers its hues to Noland as she recapitulates (according to the Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thompson, who helped to devise it in 1776) the original significance of the blue as the color of the chief “signify[ing] vigilance, perseverance and justice” ( www.usflag.org/colors.html, accessed: 4/9/2015). In the case of Oswald, purported killer of “the chief”, himself slain through an act of vigilante justice, this significance assumes morose and ironic connotations that include the ‘boys in blue’ that failed to protect Oswald in their custody, and finally the skin tone of the deceased Chief whom Oswald is due to join. The Flag’s red—originally chosen to symbolize hardiness and valour—ascribed to a man who ‘bled out’ in police captivity, without any means of defending himself, becomes demoted to a trope for weakness and cowardice. Noland once described the experience of “encounter[ing] things being built or falling apart…cinderblocks and piles of junk” (op. cit., p. 158) interspersed with visions of red, white and blue flags, while traversing the country by car, which produced a “beautiful gestalt” (ibid). Bluewald reminds us of this gestalt by conjuring the barbaric memory of Oswald’s literal unraveling as the assassin’s bullet pierced his abdomen, ravaging his internal organs.
Recalling the aesthetic of John Baldessari’s iconic dot paintings, Noland exchanges the ebullient balloon-like orbs for consecrations of absence, ghosts summoned to haunt the legacy of pop. The dramatically oversized bullet holes that bore out portions of Oswald’s body—themselves personifications of violence—ironically serve to mitigate the horrifying impact of the work through fragmentation, establishing a visual parallel to the censorship implied by the gag and shielding the viewer from the grotesque brutality of the image perceived in its totality. They also allow the viewer to see through the sculpture, lending it a phenomenological aspect that attests to the influence of Robert Morris, and other minimalist masters, that registers subtly in her work. Positioned in front of a white wall, the circular voids appear translated as positives immersed in shadow, creating the appearance of a ski-mask cloaked head, suggesting the silhouette of a Calder shadow sculpture reincarnated as a menacing mugger.