As we look back at the late 20th and early 21st century, multiple national events shook humanity on a global scale. We relinquished rights in hopes of safety. We relinquished privacy for convenience. Arguably, we relinquished facts because it was easier to lean into personal biases. But more than the social effects of a changing human landscape, it is the actual catalyzing moments that foreshadowed this trajectory that remain static in our memories. During times of elation or fear, the path of uncountable lives was changed.
These occurrences were also accompanied by a heretofore unimaginable transformation: the ability to deliver and receive data in real-time. With the help of up-to-the-minute news outlets and data sharing platforms, information can be shared with a global reach within seconds. This information has become a commodity itself, and gathering that product is a pastime of an entire generation. Though the ease with which knowledge and commodities can now be had may often be helpful to spark change and give a glimpse into the rest of the world, it can also present the burdens of consuming content at a rapid pace and the trickle-down effect of goods being readily available at the click of a button.
As Dwight D. Eisenhower vacated the Presidency in 1961 after a successful administration which championed historic pieces of legislation such as the Interstate Highway System and Civil Rights Act of 1957 among others, he warned his fellow Americans to be wary of the military industrial complex and its ability to persist and rise as an element of everyday American life. “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience…Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications…In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Sixty-years later, this warning now rings even truer.
Market Forces, the corresponding solo exhibition by Paul Weiner, posits notions of a public’s burden where we are forced to deal with the complexities and anxieties surrounding a culture and economy saturated with violence. Informed by the 2012 mass shooting in the artist’s hometown of Aurora, Colorado and his own research into the American military industrial complex and war profiteering post World War II, Weiner has created a series of new works that delve into elements of violence stemming from decades of American violence at the micro and macro scales from school shootings to global policing that perpetuates of civilian unrest abroad under the guise of humanitarian efforts. Weiner warns that there is a direct causality between the commodification of violence and the genesis of fanatical behavior under the auspices of American nationalism. An entire subculture of military grade consumption fuels the weapons industry, which maintains a sense of anonymity while skirting any form of accountability for the loss of innocent lives on the American home front and abroad.
Weiner’s sculptures in Market Forces quietly lend note to the American people’s collective memory of catastrophic events over the last two decades. Drawing conceptual parallels to Anselm Kiefer’s desire to find an identity within a post-war country, Weiner’s works often take an historical view at the lingering traumatic events of the last century. At the same time, Weiner looks at the past two decades during which the United States has been in a constant state of conflict both domestically and abroad. While the domestic arms manufacturing and sales have grown and 24-hour news cycles focus on violence, American identity is increasingly intertwined with the violence that underscores their everyday lives.
Weiner’s paintings use style as a context cue to reference historical time periods through the art movements that inhabited those times. Pulling from an encyclopedia of formalist movements and the cultures that surrounded them, Weiner’s large-scale and bombastic charcoal drawings are juxtaposed against antique Jewish Kabbalah texts and reference abstract expressionism as a vehicle for post-war Jewish sentiment. These paintings, which hint at the artist’s own hybrid identity, are further defined by their connection to Weiner’s sculpture containing a 1941 German Fanta bottle manufactured by Coca Cola and collected from a Nazi trench. The story behind Coca Cola’s profiteering on both sides of World War II via their German Fanta flavor that exploited the Nazi economy and labor is a warning about American corporate power’s historical willingness to be complicit in violence for profit.
At first glance, Weiner’s black graphite and oil paintings read as a calm reprieve in a politically overwhelming show. The artist plays with light and reflection through smooth and thick black brush strokes highlighted by ground graphite. The reflective and metallic compositions construct a void-like window into another plane. In the context of Weiner’s overtly political sculptures, these paintings also evince a connection between war profiteering and the influence of the art market as a philanthropic system often used as a mechanism to clean controversially acquired wealth. The proximity of these paintings to sculptures containing Warren Kanders’ Safariland gas canister holders as well as Raytheon and Blackwater uniforms is not accidental.
As the hyper saturation of violent information is filtered through media outlets that take linguistic cues from military and police-speak, easy access to military grade weapons offers little time for Americans to regain emotional stability between mass shootings. Thus, these shootings are perpetuated and normalized. Playing off this accessibility, Weiner’s “Copycat” sculpture was created by acquiring the Aurora shooter’s purchase receipts for target training and reproducing the sale of these objects as a source for sculptural elements. By directly copying the purchases in these receipts such as police grade human targets, Weiner’s sculpture allows the audience direct physical accessibility to materials that are not often seen by the public, highlighting the anonymity of these purchases and lack of regard for the background of the buyer.
“Copycat” channels the processes of fellow Syracuse alum Sol Lewitt as it relates to instructional object making. Lewitt states, “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” In this instance, Weiner used these principles of instruction in the form of object collection in preparation for the creation of new works, as he followed the Aurora shooter’s purchase receipts as a means of sourcing sculptural elements. By purchasing the exact same products as the Aurora theater shooter, Weiner was able to gain firsthand understanding of how easily accessed these materials can be sourced with anonymity and no regard for the background of the buyer.
At the root of this exhibition is the desire to understand and navigate the stark contrast between American idealism and a country’s inability to care for its people on a number of levels. Weiner asks viewers to consider what America could look like; what collective healing could mean to the safety and health of us all.
Aaron Levi Garvey