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Aping Popular Culture

Popular culture and modern art have been entwined in an incestuous embrace for quite some time now. Therefore, art that appropriates the symbols and status of media iconography can no longer justifiably be called subversive -- not when irony was mastered nearly a century ago by the likes of Marcel Duchamp. At the same time, video installations that are inspired by the intersection between media-woven fantasy and insular artistic convention evoke the contradictions and endless lexicon of popular culture like few other art forms can. The effect is much like that of a movie spoof, a cheeky recreation of a fantasy space that acts as both social critique and pre-packaged commodity. In their newly commissioned pieces, video artists Kota Ezawa and Michele O'Marah speak behind the smokescreen of a finely constructed celluloid dream, making irony seem almost novel.

In their joint show at New Langton Arts, entitled "Version", both artists present humorous and daring reconstructions of existing archival footage from television and film. Throwing in a medley of amateur actors, multi-purpose props, cartoon figures, cultural deities, and pertly appropriated popular culture images, Ezawa and O'Marah smartly portray the milieu's dictum: You can take the art out of pop, but you can't take the pop out of art.

Ezawa's featured work is Lennon, Sontag, Beuys (2004), a three-channel video projection that consists of animated recreations of John Lennon, writer/critic Susan Sontag, and artist Joseph Beuys. Ezawa's work is distilled from actual public appearances the three figures made. In selecting such figures, Ezawa exhumes viewers' memory for personae and events that are culturally relevant but by no means at the foreground of our collective consciousness. Accompanied by original sound, Ezawa's animated recreations are rendered from digitally drawn images that mimic the original actions of his characters. The images are simple and raw, evoking the silkscreens of Roy Lichtenstein or early Picasso cutouts. Ezawa's animation scheme is idiosyncratic and unpredictable, shifting between pictorial stillness, kinetic disjointedness, and smooth movement.

O'Marah's sole piece in the exhibit is a 40-minute projection entitled Peacehead (2004), which restages scenes from classic Hollywood thrillers like The Long Goodbye. O'Marah gathered a clump of actor friends and low-fi props to refilm key scenes from the films, but the effect is more like a series of disparate outtakes than a narrative-driven piece. O'Marah's film is about six female detectives on the trail of a deadly killer, but there is no pretense of continuity or resolution from the get-go. Her goal was the evocation of gritty 70s-era menace, a feeling that is subtly provoked by our current political climate. The result is a guerilla tour de force, a backdoor DIY coup, and a revision of narrative continuity that brings us back to the absurdity and dispensability of cinematic plots. But even though continuity all but dissolves, the convoluted quest is grounded by O'Marah's idiosyncratic characters, who happen to be her friends. What we lose in continuity is more than made up for in character identification and the recognition that there's something purposeful in such an ersatz undertaking.

The dialogue of artistic appropriation is generally a silent one, taking what it chooses and looping back into self-referential conundrums. This effect is less noticeable in the work of Ezawa and O'Marah, who eagerly seem to invite viewer investigation and participation. Ezawa's work is reminiscent of a video game, while O'Marah's sudden cuts from one scene to the next remind one of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book in filmic form. Artists like Ezawa and O'Marah are critical purveyors of the commercial skin trade in media images, but their work is distinct from the logo-branding antics that have made certain artists the poster children of media fantasy. Their strident nostalgia and redux codification of old hat media are meant to stir up conversation, and to bring language to our cultural obsession with the annals of popular culture.