An outlier among the well-known generation of young artists who emerged in London in the 1990s, Landy shares their wry attitude towards the marketplace, although his works have never celebrated their status as commodity-objects or luxury goods. Instead, through means ranging from the traditional to the outlandish, they probe the relationship of the individual to the market and to society at large. This is the artist’s first exhibition at Sperone Westwater.
Landy is perhaps best known for his 2001 project, commissioned by Artangel, titled Break Down. Over the course of two weeks, in a vacant department store building on Oxford Street in central London, Landy and several assistants systematically destroyed each of the artist’s 7,227 possessions, accumulated over a lifetime and exhaustively inventoried over the three years preceding the event. Since the completion of the project, Break Down has only existed in the form of a comprehensive typed inventory whose neat columns of text span the walls of Sperone Westwater’s third-floor gallery, along with a film documenting the project, which will be screened in the gallery’s moving room.
One large drawing connects the exhibition’s central themes of production and destruction. In it, two passersby, admiring a bin from which two upturned legs (presumably those of the artist) stick out, exclaim “Goodness, you're right—it's Michael Landy!” The work makes light of Break Down’s conceptual gravitas and makes clear Landy’s prodigious talents as a draughtsman. Notable examples include a vast series of intimate portraits of his family and friends, as well as a series of meticulous botanical etchings of weeds. The exhibition at Sperone Westwater centers on an enormous group of drawings from a body of work known as Breaking News, which derives its imagery from tabloids and other sources. These drawings, heavily layered with red and white oil stick on thick paper, range dramatically in scale from three-inch-high stick figures to enormous multi-panel compositions. Pinned directly to the wall in intuitive, expansive constellations, they scramble art-historical material and contemporary media. Dislocated from their original context and installed with an overwhelming density, these commonplace icons and catchphrases, absurd and occasionally aggressive, catch the viewer off guard, prompting attention and reflection. Their pertinence and urgency extend well beyond the confines of the art world.
The panoply of source material in Breaking News jars and fascinates. In these works, political paraphernalia commingles with cartoons, corporate logos, and art-about-art verging on the appropriationist: references to Bruce Nauman and Ed Ruscha appear alongside paraphrases of Philip Guston’s well-known drawings of Nixon and large-scale versions of figures by Jean Dubuffet. Landy renders this diverse array in uniform red and white, lending an effect alternatingly apocalyptic and graphically appealing. Where Break Down maps a life through an inventory of belongings, Breaking News maps the artist’s mind through an inventory of his thoughts, or at least his media intake. “It is exactly like browsing the Internet,” Landy says of his process. “Some source-material I really do search out, and other things just come to hand in a sense. Most of what I do has always been socially or politically related and here it has also morphed into art-related subjects.”
This is the first showing of Breaking News in the United States, following recent presentations in Basel (2016) and Athens (2017). The New York iteration centers on a group of drawings showing individual protesters. Made since the shock November 2016 election of Donald Trump, these drawings have become still more urgent and provocative, with slogans and signs taken from the many rallies staged in the months following the election. Alongside cheekily apolitical slogans (“Hi Mum I’m Still Broke”) and gallows humor (“I Am a Little Upset”), Landy’s protesters represent political stances both left and right on topics local and global, their expressions ranging from polite to vulgar, angry to jovial. As a British artist, Landy has monitored the Trump era through the lens of his country’s similarly unexpected vote to leave the European Union. Brexit scarcely appears in these predominantly American-focused works, which reflect the charged and contentious role of the media in politics. While the occasionally alarmist tone reflects the upswing of political populism, the parameters of Landy’s work both accommodate and invert this recent tendency. Beyond any particular realization in a gallery or museum, Breaking News is an ongoing project which assumes site-specific forms. Although the Sperone Westwater presentation consists of fixed elements with iconography chosen by the artist, in Athens, Breaking News became an open-source framework with contributions solicited from the public, who were invited to upload images to the project’s website for possible rendering in oil stick. Implied or actual, the participatory nature of Landy’s work is a linchpin of his practice, speaking eloquently to the idea of community and the testing of its bonds.