The Good American
The first term that comes to mind to describe the atmosphere of houseguest’s newest exhibition is nostalgia. Aging brass lamps in opposite corners of the small gallery illuminate three wooden chairs, each acting as a pedestal for soft, pillow like sculptures by artist Noah Howard . A fading wallpaper has been adhered to two of the walls, which, from afar, creates a comforting pattern that contributes to a feeling of having just entered the living room of a grandparent—though the artwork is a bit more political than you remember.
In The Good American, artists Noah Howard and Darrin Milliner have contributed work that critically examines our media-driven, consumerist culture and pinpoints our society’s emphasis on the importance of individuality despite its strict control over what is and is not acceptable. Within this critique, the artists ask audiences what it means to live in the United States, to form attachments, and to participate as a citizen and a consumer.
Attachment and nostalgia run deep in Howard’s Southern Comforts series. Resembling worn-out pillows, the soft sculptures are bursting relics. The first, located in the right-hand corner of the gallery, leans in the wicker seat against the back of a wooden rocking chair. Formed with a country-style ham sack retrieved from the artist’s grandparents, lacking a ham, the sack has been filled with a pillow the artist states was the one he took to Boy Scout Camp in North Carolina. In the opposite corner, the other two pillows have been filled with stuffing from the favorite armchair of a dear friend’s grandfather. Their cases include an American Flag formerly flown outside the Staley household in North Carolina and the foil paper from Marlboro Red boxes collected from friends and family. This collection of objects deeply reflects Howard’s identity as an individual from the South, shedding light on the peculiar things we hold on to because of their relationship to family or good memories. Additionally, the works reflect personal rituals—the daily flying of a flag, the favorite chair sat in everyday, foil paper from packs of habitual cigarettes—and finally used in the creation of art, a ritual in itself.
On the right wall, a series of six 12 x 12” prints by Darrin Milliner combine collaged imagery of maps, magazines, and comics with clipped text boxes that form aggressive compositions and challenge familiar American issues: police brutality, corruption, and consumption. In thin black frames, the faded prints resemble record album covers. With text that reads “Who do you want to be?”, “The American Dream?”, and “Identity Theft Today”, the presented images create a narrative questioning our complacency within society. The artist examines how we choose to respond to issues, if we choose to at all, and whether or not our identity is a simple reflection of what our culture dictates us to be.
Milliner’s other works in The Good American deal equally with what it means to be an American. In a small 8.5 x 11” print, the word “Lie” is printed three times down the center of the page, above the phrase “How to be an American” which also serves as the title of the work. With a faded red background, the piece resembles the cover of a magazine offering advice to audiences on everyday living. Other works examine how comfortable we have become with the everyday violence associated with American life. His print Welcome to America, for example, loudly declares “We will spare no one” With the text “Welcome to America Enjoy Your Stay” printed smaller below. Considering our administration’s current political standings on immigration, children locked in detention centers, the refusal to believe women who are victims of sexual assault, and our failure to recognize protests against police brutality as such—the words ring truer than ever.
Milliner’s use of familiar sizes in his works, such as 12 x 12” prints that resemble album covers and 8.5 x 11” prints that call into mind magazine covers, play nicely off the living room atmosphere achieved by Howard’s seating room installation. This is all further united by the wallpaper that has been applied to two of the gallery walls. With a soft grey print, closer inspection reveals that the faded pattern has been painstakingly drawn on to the paper with pencil, to create the outline of small identical jersey shirts. Each outfitted with a gun and either the words “offense” or “defense” written above it. When parallel to each other, the guns face off. Titled Each Other, Howard’s wallpaper effectively unites the works around the room, first aesthetically, and again with its critique of the familiar us against them argument so active in our society. The “us against them” dichotomy is visited again in Darrin Miliner’s The Good and Bad American. Both The Good and Bad American and Each Other, are vague on who is good and who is bad, who is offense and who is defense, but instead point out the complexities of assigning good and bad—to political parties, religions, ideologies—and the absurdity of it when at the end of the day we are all on the same team.
In combination, the artworks of Noah Howard and Darrin Milliner create a contentious and sentimental look at American culture today—recognizing the need for attachment to consumer items, as well as the hold they take over us, while serving as an outlet for the anger building inside citizens against the policies of our current administration, and our media driven society. The work is terribly timely, and painfully relatable.
The Good American is on display at houseguest through November 3.
houseguest is located at 2721 Taylor Boulevard, Louisville, Kentucky 40208 and open Saturdays 10am-1pm or by appointment.
Jessica Oberdick, Contributor to Ruckus
Noah Howard, Southern Comforts Series (2018).
Darrin Milliner, The American Dream.