Interrupting Cultural Cues: The Absurdist Recreations of Alex Savage

Pile, 2016. Gouache on canvas, plank, mayonnaise jars.

The cover of Bookforum’s first 2017 issue features a drawing by British artist David Shrigley. In his characteristic, almost childlike script, Shrigley writes: “PLEASE EXCUSE THE TERRIBLE INJUSTICE” and then, down in the corner, “THANK-YOU”. It looks like a handwritten sign you might expect at your dry cleaner’s telling you he’s stepped out for lunch, or at the deli announcing the griddle has stopped working. As artists and institutions scramble to present emergency art—American flags made into hijabs, Lady Liberty defiled and downtrodden, seminars on crisis pedagogy—Shrigley stakes out a markedly different role for art in this new age. Faced with an unrelenting crush of shocking indecencies and fascistic proclamations from President 45, the artist charts a convincing path forward with humor, humility, and understatement. It is one of the best works of art to come out of the Trump-ocalypse.

Citing Shrigley among his many eclectic influences, Alex Savage takes up his predecessor’s challenge and pushes it into forms and realms more readily accessible to an artist who came of age in the new millennium. Savage trained in painting at the Kansas City Art Institute, but holds little regard for medium-specificity, also working in drawing, text, web-based media, publishing, video, installation, and sound. His practice centers social media platforms, like Instagram and Twitter, as means of working through his ideas in public and with utter humility. Uniting his work across media is a biting, sardonic humor and a relentless critical appropriation of imagery from popular culture and mass media. Memes, cartoon characters, historical figures, consumer products: near everything is fair game for pointed disruption. In Savage’s hands, these images form a subtle constellation of evidence for the violence and moral bankruptcy of neoliberal American capitalism.

In recent years, Savage has channeled his continuous flow of image processing into a number of installations. Absurdism consistently prevails, but one whose humor reveals embedded critiques upon sustained contemplation. “Humor is a way for me to approach the world,” Savage says. “Everything is a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more present than I’ll ever be, so I feel the best way to approach these topics is from an angle, from left field.” For Bootleg (2013), Savage exhibited several drawings, digital prints, and self-published zines on a wall of shelves, with a smattering of paintings and objects throughout the gallery. In the Black Flags’ iconic logo, Savage replaced the punk band’s name with the words “video games” and “Jimmy John’s.” He wrote the word “GRILLS” in the typeset of Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, then pasted “GIRLS” across an image of a greasy Italian sub. Three faces of Homer Simpson were reduced to pictograms, scrawled over with yellow marker. Complicating the project’s humorous tone, eight “COEXIST” bumper stickers, a mainstay of white liberal bumpers, formed the shape of a swastika—a boldly overdetermined suggestion that racist hatred in its most outward, violent form is inseparable from the systemic racism perpetuated by neoliberal ideals of pluralism and colorblindness.

Savage’s work challenges rational descriptive systems. In some respects, it represents an attempt to translate the Internet and its constellation of things into physical form, without sacrificing the qualities of arbitrariness and borderline chaos. “I find myself taking elements of regular-ass media and combining them with my gleeful and anarchic stance of production,” he has written. “This mode definitely comes from how I feel sprawled and coolly frantic on my Internet. I combine and common. These characters and symbols present a similar mindset of my Internet.” In Crucial Spam (2014), Savage presented a more distilled brand of iconography, his images functioning as minimalist setups for pithier, subtler jokes. In a small cluster of paintings leaned against a wall, Savage showed a faceless Charlie Brown atop a jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise, a crude Dubuffet-like figured captioned “Henry Ford,” a tombstone engraved “white dude.” The objects of his critique swing from global imperialism toward highly personal issues of whiteness and masculinity. If these hegemonic ideologies are reified in mass imagery, then Savage’s visual and textual disruptions represent small gestures toward their undermining. Humor speaks truth to power.

Now That’s What I Call a Dead Supreme Court Justice, 2016. Drawing.

For Sensible Disobedience: Disrupting Cultural Signifiers in a Neoliberal Age, curated by Lynnette Miranda for the Charlotte Street Foundation, Savage presents several new bodies of work that speak centrally to the exhibition’s themes. In a series of paintings, he turns Panera Bread, Family Circus, and TIME Magazine into dark illustrations of contemporary alienation. He’s created scripts for imaginary music videos, illustrating darkly comical scenarios like “two people trying to out-self-immolate each other” or “many small ladybugs crawl onto a person who is on the ground,” which he’ll exhibit in the form of self-published screenplays. Other works reference cartoons and encourage viewer consumption. At a time when white male exceptionalism is doubling down, Savage’s relentless criticality and self-deprecation form a compelling model for the role a privileged perspective can play in dismantling oppressive systems. By locating capitalism as the underlying source of social problems, moreover, he embraces an intersectional and structurally oriented approach that looks beyond party lines and outside our contemporary moment.

Jared Quinton
Jared Quinton is a New York-based curator and writer. He is a Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP) and a Master's candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. He writes for publications including ART21 Magazine, Brooklyn Rail, and Artsy.net.