Western Spaghetti & Spaghetti Westerns

Maria Kozic

catalogue essay for Maria Kozic - Aperto section, Venice Biennale, 1986

Pop History

Maria Kozic is a Pop artist. While to some that statement may appear to be a cursory and even dismissive categorization, it is actually a complex and confounding restatement of Pop Art - a modernist milieu whose works (from the early 50s up to the late 70s) still project an intensity through the mouldy critical shrouds that started to embalm its cultural effects by the mid 60s. Rather than qualifying some vague 'contemporary' status for the resurgence of artists since the late 70s dealing with mass media/popular culture imagery, it might be more critically profitable to rewrite Pop Art - not as a movement/style/school/period (figured through journalistic sociology, surfacial formalism and historicism) but as an attitude/sensibility/aura/phenomenon (figural through transcultural flows, self-enveloping references and gestures).

The anthropological and anthological writings of Pop art largely constitute a zero point on the X-Y axis of art (the vertical direction) and culture (the horizontal layering), cancelling out any 'real depth' in its artistic nature. In this imposing panorama of Modern art, Pop art is framed as a lively but knotted ball of scribbling and doodling, blistering as an infinitesimal dot on the art/culture nexus (in comparison to the blobs of Cubism, the stains of Impressionism and the splatterings of Expressionism). It is almost as if culture with all its non/anti/contra-art force has been used to thin down Pop's chemical potency, suggesting that in the hegemonic manoeuvering of art history there lies a moral about the miscegenation of artistic blood with mass culture's fluids resulting in impotency. A cultural theorist an art critic does not make. Pop art isn't dead : it's just dried up on this barren landscape where informed views and conceptions of the performance of popular culture are virtually non-existent. The powdery speck of Pop art just needs a bit of juice (and preferably not from all that paint dripping off the gawdy canvases of the Trans Avant Garde).

Art History

Maria Kozic is a Pop artist. And what is one anyway? A Pop artist is one who simultaneously speaks pop through art and art through pop. And so long as there are things we call 'pop' and things we call 'art' we'll have Pop artists. Too expansive and inexhaustive? Of course - which is perhaps why Pop during the heady 60s was so critically narrowed, in an attempt to narrate its effects as a causal, cyclical closure where contemporaneity and modernity could force it into a temporal zone with precursors, instigators, perfectors and imitators. End of story. But Pop artists still live with us today, even if they do walk around like mummies, zombies and poltergeists.

The central irony to Pop art is that its depth is all there on its hyper-formal surfaces, laid bare and baking in the sun. Critical anthologies do well to display Pop art as a formal lexicon of treatments, transformations, transmogrifications and translations of pre-existent/culturally formed imagery. But what is often missed is what constitutes such reworkings as communicative effects of their original material and matter. The problem of the communicative effect is disregarded by pondering how the visual effect can de described formally and ascribed artistically. But a theoretical trompe l'oeil exists here in that the depth of Pop art (its multiple meanings) is reflected on the surfaces of its works as a distorted image of how the original material is perceptually encoded. To 'look' at Pop art involves looking back over your shoulder away from the work toward where it is looking (returning us to the notion of pop and art speaking through one another). The more intriguing Pop art (then, now, whenever) is that which presents the most interesting effects of gazing, peering, squinting and all other possible manner and form of cultural voyeurism and visual consumption.

To follow this notion of voyeurism through : the more perverted, obsessive and desperate the vision, the more interesting the resultant work. Perversity today is what we used to call creativity ; obsession is what we used to call passion ; and desperation is the state of dealing with a history of art that knows too damn much about itself. The Pop art of today is particularly desperate in its attempt to state its image content in a mode and style that will not cause ontological confusion (in consideration of how quick the viewer will cry Warhol et al when confronted with 80s Pop). Not surprisingly, this desperation has produced a strange introversion (though not an introspection) in how the artists relate themselves to their matter and material. This desperation is also the marker for the work's voyeuristic mode.

Maria Kozic's work (which we shall evidence with WESTERN SPAGHETTI, 1984) has its eyes wide open to her subjects, but its lips are in a way sealed on the matter. To compare this effect with some more well known concurrent Pop artists, states of similar desperation generate specific voyeuristic modes. Consider the 'desperate measures' (and please - by this I mean artistic intensity) of Barbara Kruger being forced into, as it were, the linguistic finality of her overlaid texts in an attempt to state the statement of the message of her message. Likewise with Cindy Sherman and her retreat into the cultural image of her personal memory that codifies her own experiences as inseparable from the mass production of 'personal' images. And Sherry Levine whose paintings proclaim that they do not belong to her but to the scanning eyes of art history. These desperate measures are as much of a sign of the times as were/are Rauschenberg's refusal of the canvas, Oldenburg's proposition of shape, Warhol's fixation with the screen and Lichtenstein's application of style. Maria Kozic's desperate vision is illustrated by the perversity of her statement and presentation, and the obsessive tie she maintains with her subjects - even if they weigh her down into cultural chaos and artistic anonymity.

First let's face the paintings before we start looking over our shoulders. WESTERN SPAGHETTI evidences an eye for detail that is less present within its frames than it is in its view of 'spaghetti' westerns (highlighted by the auteur appraisal of Sergio Leone). However its surface reveals a visual textuality that - as a Pop work from the 80s - tackles the formalist impasse of visual tactility and tangibility. Its surfacial presence, gesture and style are all fairly apparent : block colours, restricted palette, tonal distillation, dynamic framing, iconic serialization, etc. A quick scan tells us not only that the work is versed in the historical language of Pop art, but also that Pop's formalism is in the process of passing into a linguistic state where a work like this one speaks with Pop art.

This is not quotation - mainly because language is in a perpetual state of 'quoting' itself in order to generate semantic blocks and units. WESTERN SPAGHETTI more precisely does what language does all the time : it develops - in this case, Pop's visual textuality. Linguistic development is the life of language - degenerating, revitalizing and maintaining its effects through continual application. The notion of 'quote' in painting is inept. If we're going to get linguistic about art, let's get it right : a painting can be slang, an obscenity, a saying, a proverb, a cliche, colloquial, etc. Its visual textuality would then be the narrative construction of such linguistic material. This of course is not to say we should replace our critical lexicon with a linguistic manual, but that painting can develop linguistically (as a recoding of formal devices) as well as developing semantically (as a recording of authorial styles).

This all means that WESTERN SPAGHETTI 'looks' like Pop art - but it doesn't automatically mean that this work does not know how to go about 'looking' or why it wants to 'look' that way. Thus it is its 'look' that cues us in on its precise relationship with a material past (which for want of a better phrase we'll call Pop art). Many other works mutter through Maria Kozic's sealed lips here. Consider Edward Ruscha's voids of colour that work to 'hold' his subjects, be they words on a dimensional void or architecture on a flat void. WESTERN SPAGHETTI likewise pushes its subjects (as iconographic objects) up against voids that communicate rock, sand sky or sun - partly to depict the semiotic performance of landscape in the western, and partly to gesticulate the background as the container of the work's cultural perspective. (This void textually functions then as a frame-within-the-frame device, although here intensely condensed in form.) Relate this also to Lichtenstein's treatment of natural landscapes where he converts the linguistic fragments of comic-strip art (ie. not the speech balloons and bubbles but the markings of line, block and dot that communicate depth, tone and form) into suns, waves, mountains and clouds. Yet while not overtly comic-strip in style (even though the installation of WESTERN SPAGHETTI resembles the fractured continuity typical of the comic-strip), the overall visual texture of WESTERN SPAGHETTI's illustration simultaneously recalls and evokes film poster, pulp cover and magazine ad art from the 40s and 50s, which in term inspired and determined the graphic feel in works by Wesselman, Caulfield, Rosenquist and Phillips - all of whom retained that particular transcultural relationship with those pictorial modes.

The title WESTERN SPAGHETTI (as a playful reversal of the genre it addresses) succinctly states its perversion, obsession and desperation : "Western" referring to the most dominant form of mass production, and "Spaghetti" referring in slang to the visual, cultural and textual entanglement resultant from dealing with its products. The name WESTERN SPAGHETTI can thus stand in for all the transcultural flows, self-enveloping references and gestures that support and mobilize current Pop art. It pinpoints that zero point on the X-Y axis with deadly aim and precision focus to study with vigour and pleasure the fractal complexity of Pop's markings. Therein lies plenty of space for more markings, overlays and defacements. Therein lies WESTERN SPAGHETTI.

Cinema History

Maria Kozic is a Pop artist. She might just as well be a 'filmmaker', for the cinema is not just films : it is all things cinematic. (Art doesn't have a monopoly on open-endedness.) WESTERN SPAGHETTI theoretically should not be excluded from a discourse on the critical effect the spaghetti western had on the decline and recline of the western genre. Conversely, it would be folly to talk about WESTERN SPAGHETTI without looking at its critical relationship to the cinematic genre it reworks.

The great thing about cinematic objects that aren't films is that they can address the cinema in different and unusual ways which at the least would place something like WESTERN SPAGHETTI on the borders of Experimental film. To fully comprehend the workings of this piece, some technical details should be revealed here. All the images that make up the twelve panels are obviously from western movies - but not one image belongs to a spaghetti western. Deja vu : just as the formal qualities of the painting's technique and construction use the language of Pop art more linguistically than visually, WESTERN SPAGHETTI's iconic presentation reworks generic conventions (visually coded) to simulate the language of the Italian subgenre. The work equally has the 'look' of Pop art and the 'look' of spaghetti westerns - whilst simultaneously acknowledging and demonstrating the linguistic effects resultant from both subjects.

Once again we can utilize our quick scan to pick up on the work's demonstrable familiarity with the spaghetti western's permutative conventions : radical cropping, dramatic isolation, gestural fragmentation, classical stylization, etc. All elements that make up the spaghetti western's cultural and artistic slant on its subject (the Hollywood western). In a complex transcultural play, WESTERN SPAGHETTI plays Hollywood back on Italy. (How fitting this work should be exhibited in the Venice Biennale.)

In fact, just as Cindy Sherman plays actress for her own productions, Maria Kozic plays director for her own production, 'doing a Leone' so to speak. Each panel in isolation also carries the Sherman quality of being a 'still' (although the concept of film stills has been a major invigorating force in recent Pop art, not only in the bulk of both Kozic and Sherman's work, but also for artists like Richard Prince, Robert Longo, Jack Stezaker, Jack Goldstein and Annette Messager to name a few) except whereas Sherman's b&w untitled film stills are constructed out of the materiality of mise-en-scene, WESTERN SPAGHETTI's panels shape scenes into material - that is, they sculpt and design their imagery from the material that defines cinematic scenes for the western genre.

As such, each panel carries the full weight of its iconic scene. Picture the scenes that could be constructed out of the following written suggestions as to 'what is going on' in the panels (from left to right & top to bottom) : 1 - the double-cross ; 2 - the dead horseman ; 3 - the returned murderer ; 4 - reconsideration ; 5 - the horseless cowboy ; 6 - nerves ; 7 - hesitation ; 8 - solitude ; 9 - the chase ; 10 - the comeuppance ; 11 - jubilation ; and 12 - the reckoning. Each image fragment depicts a precise object in an equally precise situation. Narrative logic, in line with the expectations of the genre's morphology, instantaneously dictates an effect where something is at least felt to be 'going on' even if one can't verbalize the scene in any expanded detail. To compare further with Sherman, these are shots edited within scenes (semantic units) as opposed to her one-shot depth-of-field scenes (semantic blocks) ; freeze-frames as opposed to publicity stills.

Finally, there is the knowledge of exactly what the spaghetti western genre is all about : namely, a violent deconstruction/reconstruction of the formality of the Hollywood version. This is not to say that the Hollywood western is one animal or species (there are by now whole libraries of books and articles to counter such ignorance) but that the spaghetti style constituted the first artistic terrorism on the most classical of all film genres. Often noted for its 'operatic' visualization of violence and action, the spaghetti western - as an artistic practice concerned with high artifice - has much in common with Pop art, plus they were even happening around the same time. Remember that while Leone was transforming Clint Eastwood's tender charm (from Rawhide) into an eerie symbol of someone come to collect on the genre's saturated icons, Warhol was flattening out publicity stills of Elvis (from Flaming Star) into a ghostly reminder of the deathly iconicity inherent in the star system.

Still, for all its energy, Pop art of the 60s had a weak grasp on the pulsations, vibrations and rhythms of the cinema as either an apparatus or an institution (save for Warhol's enterprises, Lawrence Alloway's reviews and Manny Farber's criticism and painting). Pop art since has had the valuable ability to come to painting from the cinema, and to thereby return to it. Such is its directional reflux, to differentiate generations of Pop artists and link them together by virtue of their movement across culture. WESTERN SPAGHETTI heads in that direction to state of its maker : Maria Kozic is a Pop artist.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Maria Kozic.