There is humor and history in all of Darren Lago’s work, however the humor is, if not black, certainly shaded by dark times; the lushness of the work belies the greater meaning. In his new solo exhibition, Who’s Afraid of the Red, White, and Green, Lago attempts to makes sense of, or at least address, myriad concerns that are given form by and rise out of our world, from the geopolitical to the ecological, and from the concrete to the abstract. Religion, race, class, and culture all get attention under Lago’s wit and skill as a sculptor and painter. As the world seems to swing right, nationalism and xenophobia expose man’s hubris and the blind eye that is turned towards notions of common sense, decency, and democracy.
The title of the show attempts to address the falseness and emptiness inherent in the patriotism of populism, referencing the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” from Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs, which in itself is a tale of hubris and ignorance of the dangers of the world. The colors red, white, and green are among the most common colors of national flags, representing a huge variety of meanings, depending on the homeland, but immediately associative with blood, purity, and money, among others.
Colour is a painting which uses a similar image as Today We Are Going to Colour in Jesus.. but eliminates one of the orbs, as well as Christ’s wounds and many of the busy folds in his robe. His bare chest, empty eyes, and folded garments seem to make him more Greek hero than Christian deity, while the insouciance of the statement at the bottom toes the line between idolatry and sacrilege.
Rose-Tinted Mirror (Red Moon) immediately calls to mind the phrase “through rose-colored glasses”, insinuating a particularly rosy or unduly positive outlook on the world. Even as its luscious surface provides the sort of Instagram selfie-ready reflection that pervades art fairs and gallery exhibitions alike, the work is tilted down, refusing to meet the viewer’s gaze, and is not perfectly flat creating a funhouse effect that is unflattering and distorted. Red Moon is an oblique reference to a quote by Nikita Khrushchev, General Secretary of the USSR through the tumultuous early stages of the Cold War. In response to the success of the Russian satellite Sputnik I, Khrushchev stated that the US “now sleeps under a Soviet moon”. Of course, it was the Americans who first landed a man on the moon, but Khrushchev’s quote was perhaps the starting gun of the Space Race, and a warning shot over the bow of US hegemony.
Today We Are Going to Colour in Jesus.. is comprised of a clipboard holding 52 printouts of an outline of Jesus among the clouds, sun, and moon. The image is taken from children’s Christianity coloring books in the US. The bizarre alignment of the celestial bodies, as well as Jesus’ visible stigmata question teachings of an afterlife, the presence of God in all things, and the violence surrounding Christianity in both its creation and its expansion throughout world history, as well as the necessity for children to illustrate such imagery.
In London, and many major cities around the world, where construction of new buildings is booming, safety netting around work sites is as common as cranes piercing the metro skyline. Suit Debris is a life-sized men’s suit made of that same mesh. As both a commentary on the unstoppable forces of progress and industry, Suit Debris also questions the modern obsession with fashion and personality. The netting is see-through, and would have little practicality as formal wear, giving the wearer a feeling of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The protective aspect of the material also assumes that it is either keeping something inside from crumbling, or preventing something outside from falling in.
Union Square is another of Lago’s nods to Piet Mondrian, who often used urban planning as inspiration for his Modernist masterpieces, including Trafalgar Square in London, Place de la Concorde in Paris, and New York’s own Broadway. Using the size, shape, paint and frame style used by Mondrian, Lago recreates, or rather reimagines, a De Stijl work as though Mondrian himself had never stopped painting. Whereas Mondrian used grand squares and avenues as his bases, Lago has “reclaimed” the works for the people, choosing smaller, more personal gathering places such as Elephant & Castle, Place de Nation or, in this case, Union Square.
Soldier Scream and Soldier Bite resemble the heads of green plastic army men. However, their intense expressions are taken from works by 18th century sculptor Franz Messerschmidt, famous for their grimacing physiognomies. In Lago’s works, the soldiers are screaming with mouth wide open, or biting his tongue. Both expressions could be read several ways. The scream could be in fear, pain, or anger; it could be a war cry as one attacks an enemy, or it could be an anguished death knell. Similarly, one typically bites one’s tongue in concentration, unaware that it is even happening. The phrase “bite your tongue” means to hold back speech or thought, as in the literal and figurative meanings of the word infantry. In each case, we are meant to see violent emotion without having the accompanying information to be able to define exactly what each soldier has seen or experienced.
Piet Mondrian, perhaps the most well known proponent of the De Stijl movement, appears as a frequent inspiration in Lago’s work. In Foxtrot, Lago appropriates Mondrian’s orthogonal composition of the same name, but on a canvas shaped like Mickey Mouse. In this work, Mickey walks across, inhabits, and occupies a Modernist space, where art and design become a source of mass entertainment and universal renown. In the NATO phonetic alphabet, Foxtrot is also the letter F, usually assigned to or related to failure; perhaps the artist’s own tongue-in-cheek assessment.
Mayflower II is part of Lago’s response to the so-called Brexit vote that prompted the UK to leave the European Union. The original Mayflower ship brought Puritan separatists from England to the New World, experiencing all the hardships of the frontier in search of something better. Here, Lago subverts this exodus, turning the entire island nation into a self-sufficient war machine – the hull of the ship is based on the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier – and makes Prime Minister Theresa May the ship’s namesake and de facto captain.
Further use of Mickey’s pop icon status includes the E.R. Wacs – a series of small-scale airplanes with Mickey-shaped radar arrays. A play on AWACS, an advanced military radar system, E.R. Wacs addresses the interdependencies of corporate mass production, consumerism, and the military industrialization of surveillance. It also is a cheeky nod toward the Disney Empire and its pervasiveness in our daily life.
White President is clearly a draped Mickey Mouse, perhaps the world’s most recognizable children’s character. However, the work addresses the façade of the politician, the unknowability of the leader. It also includes wordplay; the term “Mickey Mouse” has long been used to describe something that is unprofessional, spurious, or cheap. In this case, the “Mickey Mouse-ification” of the American presidency has officially taken place, and the role of Commander-in-Chief has been white-cloaked, white-washed, and washed out.
Appropriation as homage, subversion as purpose, and expectation as victim; throughout his career, Darren Lago has used symbols and iconography as a starting point from which to level serious art criticism and social commentary on our world. The West has seen tumultuous times since the dawn of this new millennium, and with a deft fabricator’s hand, and a keen cynic’s eye, Lago maintains a stringent dialectical relationship between himself and the viewer, and between himself and the real world, or at least our own perception of it.
Lago lives and works on the south coast of the UK. His works are in the Saatchi collection, the Arts Council Collection, the Contemporary Art Society and numerous other museums around the world, and can regularly be seen at international art fairs with Davidson Contemporary, and Annely Juda Fine Art, London. This is his fourth exhibition with Davidson Contemporary.