This article was originally published by art ltd., in January 2012. You can read it by going here. As one minor note, I forgot to mention that Tasset had actually shown at VonZweck Gallery prior to his Kavi Gupta show.
Born in 1960, on the cusp of JFK’s Camelot administration, Tony Tasset is one of Chicago’s most successful midcareer artists. With public commissions in Culver City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and University Park, Illinois, he has been actively exhibiting his work nationally and abroad for almost 15 years. In 2006 he was the awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award. Perhaps of equal significance to the artist’s oeuvre, he threw the first pitch at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field in 2010.
We met at a cafe in Greek Town–one of those old-school affairs where espresso comes in porcelain cups with sugar melted through the shot. We got together to talk about his upcoming show at Kavi Gupta Gallery; despite prolific success, it marks the first solo show of new work Tasset has had in Chicago in 15 years. It was around five o’clock, and outside the window, pedestrians shuffled home from work or school. Inside, the air smelled like sweet bread and pistachio candy. It was the first time I’d talked to Tasset and the cafe seemed a fitting place to do so, reminiscent as it was of a bygone era. “It’s funny, you know, I grew up always wanting to be an artist but I think I wanted to be like Norman Rockwell or Walt Disney,” Tasset said. “In a weird way I’ve just been thinking recently about how my work is like that, but twisted a little bit. But that Norman Rockwell–and Disney–both keyed into this American imagery. I’m just realizing now, duh, I’m making jack-o-lanterns and snowmen.”
Much of Tasset’s work draws on signs that used to translate an inherited idealism, showing at once their beloved place in American mythology while exposing an often fetid, softly rotting age. Among his accolades he erected a massive Paul Bunyan sculpture in the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park. Perhaps like the rest of America, Tasset’s Bunyan is old and tired; the axe looks heavy in his still-large hands. “You know, there’s tons of Paul Bunyan sculptures across America and I always thought of him as this character that almost represents manifest destiny–he’s always broad-shouldered and kind of the perfect American spirit.” Tasset shrugged, adjusting the cup in his hands. “He’s a great metaphor for American hubris.”
We used to have a coffee cup in my house when I grew up. At first glance it was plain and white, but inside the cup sat a little, green ceramic frog, no taller than a silver dollar. My mother used to give the cup to houseguests when it was full and we’d wait expectantly for that moment when the frog broke the coffee’s surface and the guest realized, usually with a small gasp, that a porcelain pair of eyes was staring at them. Tasset’s work has a similar affect, blending into a landscape one takes for granted and suddenly appearing out of nowhere with a wink. He has a piece on Chicago Avenue at Ashland–a non-descript intersection that has not experienced revitalization in fifty some years. Aside from a giant warehouse that’s been converted into a library, every building on the street is either vacant or leased by small business dollar stores. In the display window of this library, a mountain of very dirty snow looks like it was just plowed into a wedge. Without any explanation it sits there, inside its own, tiny vestibule, a fluffy pile of gray grit with cigarette butts and chip packages and very, very dirty flakes mixed in with whiter, seemingly newer bits of ice. It sits there all year long, easily overlooked–especially in winter–for its banal and everyday appearance.
This is one of Tasset’s installations. The “snow,” boasts a manufactured realism present in much of his work. I walked past this sculpture at least five times before stopping to wonder why a bunch of gross snow stood, unchanging, in the same window every day. Only then did I realize it was art, and started paying attention to the fantastic detail of its illusory reality. I apprehended its texture in a new way and began puzzling over the striations of variously colored dirt and sleet. While Tasset might use common American imagery, there is always an underlying tarnish, something slightly rundown, rotten and sticky, and a little bit sad. Perhaps this is where our vernacular has taken us, the language of Americana inherited from Rockwell’s bygone era. It elicits pleasure because it elicits sympathy. “An earlier piece I did was this sad snowman, and it was the same thing: Could I take something that’s so banal, so quoted, that everybody has kind of made, and could I treat it like a Giacometti? Could I give it that pathos and existential angst?”
As with the snow in the window, Tasset’s pumpkins and snowmen remain in a state of static collapse, like death masks made by Hallmark. To further remind us of mortality, he also made a chandelier out of fabricated human bones (which I have heard now lives above an art collector’s dinner table),Capuchine Chandelier. In Magnolias for Pittsburgh, Tasset installed two steel and eternally blooming magnolia trees amongst a grove of magnolias. In the summer, his sculptures are indistinguishable from their living cousins. At present, a massive eyeball, less gruesome than a Garbage Pail Kid comic but equally emphatic rests in Chicago’s downtown; it stares like an awkward planetary orb, both benign and obtrusive, looking more like a scientific diagram than a “sculpture.” The eye is a massive replica of Tasset’s own eye, standing as a reminder for the various cameras positioned around cities, the various social media sites that proliferate personal information and disseminate personas. It might seem like an act of control at first, an attempt for Tasset to assert his own gaze on the public, but of course the eye is impotent and blind–a mere decoy. The real cameras are everywhere else and they don’t look organic.
Tasset regularly employs what is more or less an icon factory in the Midwest. “I work with this great place in Wisconsin who make giant Paul Bunyans and giant musky fish and dinosaurs and roadside attractions. Wisconsin Dells, that’s their oeuvre. I think their big bread and butter is they make slides for kids pools and stuff, like a giant frog with a tongue that becomes a slide. When I discovered these guys I just loved it–it’s like this vernacular sculpture and they make stuff really big.” At present the factory is transforming Tasset’s Hot Dog Man from clay into a fiberglass. The piece will stand eight feet tall and eight feet wide; over the last year, Tasset has been modeling the form out of clay in his studio. “I had to slice it up into pieces, I put these shims all over it, covered that in rubber, then these guys from Wisconsin came down to my studio, backed the rubber up with fiberglass to make a mother mold, then they took that off, took the rubber, took the molds up to Wisconsin, and then they make positives of all of it and put those together.” A certain amount of engineering is involved: the piece has to be made in parts, so that it can be installed on the other side of narrow doors. “This Hot Dog Man–I mean yes, it relates to the Paul Bunyan in that it’s another vernacular thing, but it’s different, for sure. I’ve gone off more on this psychedelic, weird look, and I just get the biggest kick out of that, it just seems more fun.”
“In a way the Hot Dog Man is funny, it brings together that populace thing, but it’s a little darker too–I mean the Hot Dog Man is obscene and grotesque, so it definitely would not win a public art competition.” It picks up on a MAD Magazine aesthetic, part psychedelic, part surreal and very smiley. In addition to the Hot Dog Man, Tasset’s exhibit at Kavi Gupta Gallery will also show Mood Sculpture–a totemic stack of fiberglass emoticons that range in color from blue to yellow. Each corresponds to a different mood. Yellow, at the top, is happy. Blue, at the bottom, is sad. This self-diagnostic meter looks like something that might appear on a poster in a doctor’s office for anti-depressants, calling forth an idea that happiness is something to be sought for, something external to possess. Achieving it signifies success, just as its pursuit is endemic to our national identity.
In Chicago, we think about hot dogs and staving off the darkness of winter. In Southern California, the dream is one of Hollywood. To that end, Tasset is about to erect a hundred-foot rainbow over MGM Studios in Culver City, California. “Sony Entertainment has the old MGM Grand studios in Culver City, which is this great old Deco studio. It’s where the Wizard of Oz was filmed, so I’m making a hundred foot tall by two hundred foot rainbow. It’s like a perfect half-sphere of steel. You’ll see it from miles and miles around. It’s kind of like my little Hollywood sign.” With all the economic unrest, there is a real way in which America’s manifest destiny has expired–at least, the possibility of expiration is palpable. I have found myself in a surprising number of conversations where someone suggests, “Rome is burning.” Politicians spend 70% of their time fundraising. Social Security projections are bleak at best and student debt is a staggering time bomb. The Hot Dog Man is like a Bacchic figure revolting against its Pop diagnostic counterpoint with masturbatory glee. On the other side of the country, meanwhile, we hold our breath in case–just in case–Hollywood is not a dream, in case it’s possible to find some place on the other side of the rainbow.