Rondle West’s Pop-Rococo universe is something to behold. He is a maximalist working with miniatures, creating visual flourishes and earth-bound chandeliers out of thrift-store cast-offs, knick-knacks, dolls, action-figures, and whatever else lands in his aesthetic ballroom/landfill. He does not seem to know when to stop and yet each of his sculptures feel perfectly edited and extremely finished, thanks to their monochrome glosses (richly horrible jelly-bean colors shining like Flash Gordon or some other old-school sci-fi). Unlike a lot of assemblage artists, West does not celebrate the objects he appropriates. He just uses their shapes and meanings to fashion clouds and skylines to an impossible and kind of scary Utopia-scape. In fact any deep meaning is almost always trumped by the overbearing everything-ness of each piece, a meticulous attention to detail bordering on the insane and yet melded and teased into a precise preciousness.
West is a mannerist of the highest and lowest order. He somehow channels Marie Antoinette and John Waters simultaneously: perfumed decadence and white-trash decadence merge into an acrylic union of style over substance. But then again the substance somehow glistens from the finesse of repurposing all that garbage into splendor. In other words, High and Low get impossibly fused, and the result is posh, low-down, silly, and somehow completely on the money. West seems so intent on the particulars that his intensity forms a path to a sort of Heaven for him in each of his works, like William Blake building paradise inside a toy box.
Blake once wrote, “Exuberance is beauty,” and that’s the main quality I think I’m praising in West’s aesthetic approach. Each of his works is a cheerleader’s biggest cheer, a socialite’s more divine party, a disco diva’s most elaborate remix. Call it Liberace-chic: excess to the point of camp, but also frozen into a permanent (and sometimes terrifying) state of glee.
West’s exhibit of sculptures is the main event of “Bits and Pieces,” the new show at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center that runs through October 7, 2011. West’s plastic hyperbole takes center stage in the main gallery there, and as you move from piece to piece you might start feeling a little bit of a stomach-ache from too much eye-candy, but pop a few Rolaids and persist. This is the kind of art that makes you laugh and makes you go gaga in a Lady Gaga kind of way. Think Alexander McQueen doing a whole collection based on The Smurfs, or Jeff Koons on speed with a glue gun and free access to Toys R Us. West’s art is pretentious as hell without being pompous, like an elaborate joke that somehow becomes opera.
Freddie Mercury’s 65th birthday was last week, and West’s artworks are the perfect memorial to the flamboyancy and craft of Queen’s incredible lead singer. Like Mercury’s voice and stage presence, each of the sculptures West has on view is a fantasia of poses and eye-lash-batting overkill, and yet the odd thing about it all is that, like Mercury, West somehow channels art through all that decadence. He finds the perfect note to counteract self-indulgence while each sculpture is completely indulgent in its own slightly sick, over-the-top way.
“My Date with Barbie Is Tomorrow Night” is a pink caryatid with a large Ken doll body as the foundation for a swirling universe of chitchat and clatter. West makes static cartoonery into a sort of Tower of Babel parable here. There are little weird vignettes all up and down the mannequin body, as if there’s a confusing war going on that no one knows about and yet everyone is participating in. “My Date” is also his largest construction, so it becomes a sort of center of gravity to the show, like a pink prime minster overcome by centuries of candy-colored calamities and crises. Cotton-candy becomes marble somehow in this piece, as if Candyland has gone completely official. The smaller, Darth-Vader black “Mine’s Bigger than Yours” is a futuristic porcupine warrior-craft made from tossed-aside toys – a slick obsidian dream about missiles and roosters merging into the new weaponry. All white and hanging on a wall like an altarpiece, “Pop My Wedded Blister” features Godzilla and a chorus of assorted acrylic princesses working on the perfect wedding ceremony.
Something ceremonial pervades all of West’s work. He creates little cultural universes in each sculpture with populations practicing their own slightly askew rituals, graduations, coronations, and funerals. West is the Gulliver in this scenario, and each sculpture is a detailed diorama of some new Lilliputian palace, courtyard, or cathedral.
Another quote by William Blake sums up West’s technique and purpose: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” It would be easy to position West and his work as eccentric kitsch, but I think all the fun he is having has a serious tint to it. He is shellacking whole worlds and systems in his sculptures – showing us the absurdity of what we do while relishing in the luxury of it all. His satire is easily overwhelmed by the magic spell of his choice of materials and the silly grandeur of each tableau, but there’s also an exhausted wisdom in his oeuvre.
“Nothing really matters,” Mercury sings at the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” West provides a three-dimensional set of musical notes to accompany that refrain. While transforming all the ephemera and tchotchkes and plastic doodads of the world into armies and cathedrals, he stumbles upon the existential philosophy of a glam-rock icon letting us all in on a little secret: “Nothing really matters to me.”
– Keith Banner