The Archaeology of False Idols - Mundane as Medium in Wolberger’s Cowboys & Indians by Mark Mian
Across the room and from their humble origins as toys, Yoram Wolberger’s life size enlargements of classic cowboy and Indian figurines might appear as glorified tokens of childhood nostalgia. Looming heroes in candy colors, they evoke that age when such figures can appear larger than life. Once standing to inspire so much imagined reality, now they leap out as cartoonish monuments to childhood fantasy.
Closer, the sculptures reveal features formerly too diminutive to affect their function. Wolberger’s back-to-life-size enlargements are in the same world as Andy Warhol’s pop portrayals and Jeff Koons’s kitschy adaptations, but his creativity is purely focused on uncovering the flaws in icons that we do not, or choose not, to see. Thus, he faithfully reproduces each sculpture from multiple scanned images of a miniature dime-store figurine, using an exacting process of precision 3D digital enlargement and hours of meticulous detailing.
Each sculpture perfectly echoes every production flaw of its original: the faulty seams, distorted proportions and semi-translucent flashings that are the unmistakable, and ironically individual, birthmarks of its mass production. The cowboys are “true blue”. The Indians are red, like “redskins” never were. Towering in threatening poses of colonial conflict, they can no longer be judged simply as playthings, but instead as monstrous inventions of ethnocentrism. However playful their appearance, Wolberger’s figures are nonetheless critical monuments to untried historical stereotypes in the bygone era of childhood innocence.
The Medium of the Mundane
That the foreign-born artist himself played with such toys during his own childhood is testament to how seamlessly cultural bias may be transmitted through innocuous media. This power of media to subliminally convey social norms is a topic whose antecedents are worth considering.
In 1931, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World presented an absurd and eerie vision of a futuristic utopia that embodied the seemingly progressive values of our society so driven by the promise of ‘better living through technology’. Central to such myths is the replacement of nature’s spontaneity with the predictability of a constructed world, and worldview. In Huxley’s world of engineered happiness, children are no longer born of mothers, but eugenically designed and hatched in vitro. Through years of subliminal conditioning, somnolent children are indoctrinated with the reassuring rules of neophobia, narcissism, classism and racism that uphold the stability of their designed social order. Deluded by their programmed reality and attachments to state-fabricated icons, they float through life unquestioningly content in their frictionless society – each one an individual plastic stereotype, a life size figurine.
When disillusionment destroys one’s faith in the established order, it is natural to question the solidity of every brick in the building. With eyes newly opened, one reassesses the trusted icons and expressions that were once permitted to cement our ideals of morality and normalcy. For Huxley’s protagonist, the rude awakening occurs on a trip to a ‘savage reservation’ containing the last vestiges of unconditioned native Indians and wilderness. There, he witnesses the paradoxical beauty and ugliness of humanity untamed. Upon his return to his synthetic society, the familiar becomes suspect, his socially conditioned sense of security betrayed by his unsanctioned experience.
Is trust in the familiar an invitation to unconscious influence and eventual alienation? Object-associations and attachments form automatically through repeated exposure, as our brains work relentlessly to wire reliable order into our worldview. For Wolberger, unrealistic promises of perfection are found embedded even in the innocuous objects of everyday life. Cultural beliefs are implicitly encoded in the mass production of the characteristic tools and toys that pervade and define what is ‘home’.
Brave New World is a pronouncement against the mass production of cultural ideals. Such ideals compose the dehumanizing fiction of state-conceived models of perfection, and the loss of human individuality and freedom. Huxley’s warning here is simple: when there is no more room for human error – there is no more room for humanity.
Human error and its consequences can be simultaneously disturbing and beautiful. We are not ‘perfect’. Our blemishes – as the faults of our culture’s icons and stereotypes – are in fact what make us human. We are ‘all the above’ – beautiful and ugly, compassionate and mean, and so on. Through my work, I am struggling with the need to accept the faults along with the disillusionment they bring of being denied the perfect world that we were promised.
How is this promise inferred? In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan famously states, “the medium is the message”: that the very vehicles of communication may themselves subconsciously influence our understanding, beliefs and behavior. Within society’s seemingly mundane trappings, Wolberger discovers an overlooked medium that impresses the collective unconscious. In humble domestic surroundings he identifies trivialized objects as icons saturated with hidden meaning and unconscious suggestion, both personal and cultural.
Wolberger’s body of work encompasses a variety of everyday objects; toys, models, appliances, furniture. His method is the painstaking manipulation of these iconic artifacts. Grossly enlarging, dissecting or reconstructing them, he overthrows their utilitarian context to expose associations normally concealed by their continuity with the environment. His pieces are at times ironic and personal, even tender, while at others they are highly critical.
Transformed beyond their expected appearance, construction or functioning, Wolberger’s arrestingly mutated objects stimulate renewed contemplation of their ideological origins and significance. Typically, his sculptural interventions employ three principal approaches for evicting viewers from their comfort zone of habituated perception.
By slicing and collapsing familiar household objects, Wolberger demolishes reassuring symbols of domestic comfort and stability. Still standing, a refrigerator cut into layers provokes the uneasy feelings of instability and displacement that arise when trusted relationships are cut. Turning things inside out, deconstructing and reconstructing objects into newly functioning configurations, he exposes the intimate personal space housed within and around them. Through such manipulation he explores the construction of meaning at the junction of our physical, social and personal worlds.
Through his process of enlargement, he meticulously magnifies toy figurines and models to expose the flawed faces of our cultural ideals. Gun-slinging cowboys and brutish Indians, the iconic American “good guys and bad guys”, idolize society’s original villains and heroes. His toy soldiers and chromed sports trophy figurines aggrandize our essential ideals of heroism, patriotism, physical prowess and beauty that drive our economy. A life size wedding cake bride-and-groom garishly mass-markets marital love as pure saccharine sweetness. Lately, he has been enlarging unassembled toy models of war machines to confront us with our society’s industrialized vision of peace through rigidly uniform order.
Each of Wolberger’s sculptures is a perfectly rendered tribute to the pantheon of imperfect stereotypes upon which our society’s continuing order is dependant. Seeking a unified view beyond the contradictions of cultural concept and physical form, his art transcends the realms of the trivial and the traumatic.
Red Indian #4 (Spearman), 2008 Collection of The Brooklyn Art Museum
Yoram Wolberger will be the subject of an exclusive ARTSY online Exhibition from May 16 - June 19, 2017. You can view this show on the Mark Moore Fine Art ARTSY page at the following link during those dates.