Marlborough is pleased to present Mockingbird, a solo exhibition of the work of Gibb Slife.
John Lennon released his first solo album in 1970. At that time, President Richard Nixon had both a fascination and a vehement hatred of Lennon and tried to have him deported. While he awaited progress reports of the deportation process, Nixon listened to Lennon’s first solo record repeatedly and became particularly obsessed with the 10th track on the record, “God”, in which Lennon sings “God is a concept...” After countless scotch fueled nights of listening to this mantra and ruminating on its meaning Nixon saw a parallel between Lennon’s questioning of God and his own critique of the Gold Standard, which he saw as an unnecessary burden on the U.S. economy. He discontinued the Gold Standard in 1971, ultimately resulting in inflation, nation-wide substance abuse and Jim Croce. Nixon tried to backtrack on his ill-made claim and bolster the American resolve by saying “Let me lay to rest the bugaboo of what is called devaluation.” It was too late. The American Spirit was broken. Lennon had set up the bowling pins and Nixon had knocked them down.
Mockingbird takes its title from “Operation Mockingbird”, a CIA initiative that began in 1948 using art and culture to propagate psychological warfare. In the 1950s, one leg of the operation used Abstract Expressionism and contemporary jazz subversively to taunt and temper the resolve of the Soviet Union. By staging exhibitions and performances in countries bordering the Eastern Bloc, they promoted the idea that Americans were unlimited and prosperous, at liberty to make whimsical and impractical art-- pure expressions of freedom.
Slife’s exhibition, consisting of painting and sculpture, examines the categorization of the historical object and is an exploration of context and storytelling. In part, it takes a cue from Marcel Broodthaers and his Museum of Modern Art: Department of Eagles whose main assertion was that any notion of a fixed art historical context is debatable. Mockingbird presupposes that the thin line between ‘art historical context’ and ‘historical context’ should be open to scrutiny as well, as there is surely some spill over in each direction. This exhibition examines this psychology through popular imagery and the ephemeral aftermath of propaganda.
The paintings, on the surface, take slight variations of a 19th Century Russian wallpaper pattern and more recent Hollywood movie memorabilia as their subject. When taken together, the works stridently emphasize the paper itself as object (as it is curled, crumpled and distressed, floating on a field of white gessoed canvas) as much as the implicit condition of easy dissemination and reproducibility critical to propaganda and the explicit message of class and power contained in the imagery. In this way, these works question the very possibility of a history that is not, at least in part, fictional.
Slife’s sculptures consist of historically fictitious garments displayed, like period dress, on mannequins and accompanied by explanatory text. Utilizing the logic and authority of formal museological display, the clothing hews true to its purported era of design and maintains an air of plausibility. Like the rest of Slife’s artworks, these pieces ultimately suggest that the weight of the assertion of the historical object lies somewhere between presentation and perception.