Amerika: A Punch In the Face

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Longo's sinister White House split asunder

Using art to reflect and endure the merciless times, longtime bad boy Robert Longo's new exhibit Amerika exposes the darkness of our cultural moment with three chilling large-scale works, another step in his ongoing portrayal of the grim workings of American political power aptly dubbed his Destroyer Cycle series. Starting in the 1970s with Men in the Cities, featuring Mad Men-era figures caught in vivid mid-stride by gunfire, Longo's huge, intricate charcoal drawings have showed a chaotic country at war with itself - police brutality, gun violence, Ferguson protesters, shredded flags, desperate migrants, a divided political system reflected in iconic buildings and bleak titles - "Strike the Sun," "Everything Falls Apart."

His 2012 Protocol Verso  depicts stark U.S. flags juxtaposed with protests; a last flag is dedicated to Howard Zinn.  A 2014 portrait of the US Capitol was paired with a 17-foot-high sculpture of a listing, collapsing American flag, a ship going down, titled "Untitled (The Pequod)" after Captain Ahab's doomed whaling ship. His 2018 portrait of the Supreme Court showed it split, clean but harsh, down the middle. Longo once noted, "I've become this old man carrying all these newspapers around – that’s my job, to catch these images and slow them down." “There’s this saying, those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it,” he said. “But those that know history just repeat it."

With Amerika, which opened last week and references Kafka's novel about an immigrant's hard journey here, Longo joins other artists - see We Are All From Somewhere and Decolonize This Place - grappling with the current catastrophe. It isn't pretty: One review of the show calls Longo's Amerika, "One Frightening Place To Live." Longo depicts the iconic White House in its current incarnation - a sinister, Sleeping-Beauty-like haunted house, riven into three parts. He returns to gun violence with a massive, 1.5-ton metal sphere dubbed Death Star 2018; it's made of 40,000 bullets welded to a steel ball, representing that year's 40,000 gun deaths - double his 1993 Death Star, which "only" had 18,000 bullets representing 18,000 deaths. He is donating 20% of its sale price, $1.5 million, to Everytown for Gun Safety.

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The final piece is Icarus Rising, a surreal, 10-minute, black and white film of Longo slo-mo tearing apart images of Hannity, Putin, Stormy Daniels, Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump tweet about “hamberders” in a sort of sensory-overloaded newsreel. Citing a New York Times writer who once called Longo's art  as subtle as a head butt, one critic says the new film comes closest to an actual slow-motion punch in the face. Given the urgent times, Longo is down with that. “I think my art is a head butt, a punch in the face, a kick in the balls, a kick in the ass,” he says. “I am preaching to the choir. But I’m not preaching, I’m fucking screaming to the choir. What the fuck are you going to do about this?" Despite the darkness, he insists there is a glimmer of hope: As proof, he points to the flag flying above his White House. “The thing with the flag," he says, "is to rise above."

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Khashoggi in  Icarus Rising

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Close-up of Death Star 2018

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