Popular culture has gone through some pretty drastic changes over the past fifty or sixty years of mass media, and it’s anybody’s guess as to how it will truly evolve in the digital, social network age. Trends and notoriety spike and plummet on a whim anymore, with todays most amazing thing quickly being replaced by the next most amazing thing. Maybe this is why The 1980’s: A Decade of Comedic Characters, an exhibition of works by Jon Arvizu at Practical Arts, is refreshing and vibrant, because the popular culture icons of that decade remained a part of the fabric of the culture in a more permanent way than they do today, and it’s this permanence that is on display.
Arvizu uses screen printing, hand cut stencils, mixed media techniques, and digital techniques to layer the simple line drawings and touches of color to his portraits of some of the 1980’s most famous comedians and pop culture characters. The basic line drawings and stark use of positive and negative space show off not just the actor but specifically the characters that are being portrayed. Every image is named not only for the actor, but the character, movie, and year are referenced, showing the pop culture icon as a part of the medium of movie making as much as a part of pop culture in general.
A few of the monochromatic images have splashes of color, like in the slightly rose colored cheeks and bow tie of Pee Wee Herman. Pink becomes more than an accent in the color scheme for Molly Ringwald, taking over as a shade in its own right, and adding an extra splash of color to the image. These extra touches of color are subtle and deliberate, adding just an extra bit of life to the print and creating another layer of depth to the otherwise gray scaled prints.
Let’s face it, these prints aren’t saying anything hugely important about the state of the world today. They’re not trying to save the whales, or end nuclear weapons, or say no to drugs, but then again neither were the pop culture characters of the 1980’s. In a time filled with a cautious optimism, spurred by an arms race against a still scary Soviet Union, movies and music were a form of escapism. It was a way to laugh at strange golf club groundskeepers, chuckle at the funny way skateboarders talked, and travel through fantastical worlds with Pee Wee and Beetlejuice, and in the end, this escapism proved enough. And this exhibition shows the power and perseverance of a good laugh in the midst of troubled times.