How to write about Mark Flood? Here is an artist who devoted the first twenty years of his work to satirising the vanities of celebrity culture, and poking fun in particular at what he terms the ‘art bureaucracy’. The work ranged wildly in style but in tone consistently covered a spectrum from mildly confrontational to full-on grotesque. This guy was 22 in 1979 and is properly punk in attitude. His band is called Culturcide. In the mid ‘80s Flood was making collages that produced nightmarish but hilarious distortions of celebrity publicity shots: Kenny Rogers and Barry Manilow with parts of their facial features replaced with genitalia. People struggled: puerile is a word you come across in reviews. At the end of the decade there were stencilled text spray paintings that said ‘Fuck the economy’ or ‘Eat human flesh’. These imperative statements ape the assertive mode of address of advertising and connect works like New American Triptych in the current show. This borrows logos from US and UK think tanks the Brookings Institute, Chatham House and the New America Foundation, painted onto a crumbling plaster façade. Let’s not forget that Flood lives and works in Houston, the oil capital of the US, a city shaped by cut-throat commerce, with an aggressive energy all its own. He has a front row seat from which to observe neo-liberal capitalism in action.
But around 2001 Flood began making the lace paintings. It is not coincidental that Flood had been reading Dave Hickey, whose defence of beauty in art was the subject of his book The Invisible Dragon, published in 1993. So the story goes, the lace paintings were developed to appeal to just the kind of collector, precisely the kind of market that the artist had formerly rejected so definitively. They are process based works, delicious in their colour, and exquisitely beautifully produced. Paint is literally pushed through lace applied to the canvas, and then removed to reveal the textile design in negative. People liked them. A lot. Then came the flag paintings that in the Modern Art show alternate with the lace paintings. These ultra-pixelated motifs are taken from the lowest grade online images of the US flag that Flood could find, and then blown up until they become unreadable, meaningless. They are very elegant, thinly-painted in washes of UV ink and share the artist’s cool, deadpan, even cynical style.
If you came to the show not knowing the earlier work, then you might comment that it is surprising not to respect the distinct bodies of work, the flags and the lace paintings, because perhaps intermingling them undermines their integrity. If you weren’t familiar with the earlier work you might respond to the lace paintings by perceiving that with their all over, dense patterning they trigger thoughts of non-Western art, prayer mats even, in spite of the classical imagery in some of them. Or you might think that the way the centre of each piece of lace is ripped out creates a framing strategy, and sets up all kinds of thoughts about pictorial devices. Or about violence done to the demurely domestic. The flag paintings might put one in mind of Joseph Albers’ abstraction, or maybe Jasper Johns. But knowing what we know, Flood shuts down these avenues for approaching the work. One resists the impulse to really, really like the paintings on a retinal level, because the conceptual framework that the artist has constructed around the work makes this kind of uncomplicated response unacceptable. The paintings are intentionally, knowingly problematic. Take a look at this brilliant video the artist produced in 2012. It is a kind of manifesto. (Parental Advisory: Beware some tough imagery).
So, I don’t know how to write about Mark Flood. I am probably part of the art bureaucracy that he distrusts, so I am doomed from the start. He has created a space from which to be critical of the world, and the art world, that is so slippery it’s incredibly enjoyable to observe. Get along to Modern Art and just try not to like the work too much.
Mark Flood, American Buffet Upgrade, Modern Art, 4-8 Helmet Row, London EC1V 3QJ. Open Tuesday to Saturday 11.00 – 18.00 and by appointment. Exhibition continues until 14 November 2015. www.modernart.net