Something as banal as chewing gum irregularly stuck to New York pavements has inspired British artist Adam McEwen’s most recent body of work, currently on show at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen. Comprising ten large inkjet prints on a cellulose sponge material, McEwen’s new Sponge works are a continuation of his Bomber Harris series, which gained the artist international recognition.
McEwen’s photographs of the chewing gum-riddled New York pavements inspired the placement of spots in his Bomber Harris paintings. The spontaneous spotting resembled an aerial view of a bombed landscape, which is why the series was named after Arthur “Bomber” Harris who perfected the technique of aerial bombing during World War II. For this Sponge series, McEwen printed his images of chewing gum onto cellulose sponges before soaking them in resin and mounting them onto aluminum.
The bulk of the show is hung is the gallery’s main space where juxtaposition between order and disorder sets the tone. Symmetrically aligned on the gallery’s lateral walls, nine large canvases dominate the space from floor to ceiling. The works’ forms are rectangular and organized, yet their subjects appear random with seemingly spontaneous blobs, lines and scratches. Despite the rigidity of the canvases, the surfaces, owing to McEwen’s technique, depict a spongy texture suggesting that you might be able to press and squeeze them. The series’ prevailing monotone is disrupted by two colorful prints: one has a yellow rectangle in the lower left of the canvas while directly opposite is a canvas in a single shade of bubblegum pink. Despite these minor deviations, the sponges, sourced in uniform size and color, uphold a sense of order, referencing standardization in mass production.
Plastered on the back wall, a large circular print of the iconic bright yellow sticker from the 1970’s anti-nuclear movement overpowers the space. It reads in German “Nuclear power? No thanks” and was first shown at Rodolphe Janssen in 2009. Liking the sticker’s humorous politeness, McEwen features two of them alongside his sponge works.
McEwen is known for evaluating historical events to question the relationship between fact and opinion generated by the media and mass communication. The mass production of these anti-nuclear stickers highlights the attempt to speak out against humanity’s horrifying capabilities using humor coupled with bright, child-like shapes and colors. These naïve, uplifting forms unsettle the Bomber Harris series’ more sinister implications of war and the stickers’ reference to a nuclear threat. A similar though less disturbing uncanny effect is present in the sponge works: while some diagonal lines suggest perspective, the pavements are presented vertically rather than horizontally. Although the chewing gum splotches remind us that we are looking at a New York street, the familiarity is thwarted by abstraction.
The second room focuses on McEwen’s circular forms, which further contrast the ordered curatorial installation of the first. Printed on the lower section of a wall, a second anti-nuclear sticker runs onto the floor, appearing lethargic and sluggish; its message is jeopardized, perhaps referencing the stickers’ eventual lackluster impact. One of McEwen’s graphite works, a Frisbee named Wham-O All American (2013), after the American Frisbee brand, is elevated on a pillar to converse with a circular, dark grey oval featured on the only sponge work in that room.
As an independent series the sponge-works successfully function as uncanny, abstract representations of a New York street, confusing perspective and drawing attention to our chaotic existence. Yet there are two factors that bolster our interpretation and create a sinister overtone to the show. One is the inclusion of the anti-nuclear stickers and the graphite Frisbee, which reference political, mass-produced America and invites us to critique the sponge works as commentary on society’s failings. The other is the memory of the Bomber Harris series. When approached as an extension of these paintings, the sponge works become nostalgic echoes of the past, alluding to McEwen’s career but also historical events, which ripple through contemporary life. As these factors work together, the sponge series becomes a reminder of social and political disorder that repeats itself in varying abstract forms throughout civilization. The prints get absorbed into McEwen’s oeuvre, which constantly questions blurred realities created through mass media and political spin.
(All Images: Adam McEwen, Rehabilitating the Steinway Tube Ducts, installation view; © Adam McEwen / Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Rodolphe Janssen.)