Once Removed: New Works by Peter Bugg
The works of Peter Bugg are engaged with the critique of celebrity, the cult of personality, and the mass aesthetic of consumerism. Through the use of re-appropriated imagery and incisive interventions in form and content, Bugg acts as a surgeon of pop culture caché. Focused on the status of the art object in the fading light of the age of mechanical reproduction, Bugg's oeuvre is a timely mediation on how fame, fortune and misfortune function in the cultural imaginary. By creating new forms of commentary, or really meta-commentary, about tabloid journalism, fashion, trading cards, stickers, and other forms of common cultural currency, Bugg's work alerts us to the changing status of celebrity, where the idea of being famous for being famous has become a newly minted aspirational bias amongst today's youth.
Of course, the naturalization of the need to be seen is a by-product of the period of intensive subsumption by capital, when individuals are tracked and marketed to in real-time. In such a period, few issues loom as large over cultural politics as a whole as the industrialization of subjectivity, and the industry of perpetual promotion that surrounds it. Over the last half-decade or more Bugg has dedicated himself to commenting on, making performances about, and collaborating with other artists through a series of projects that look at culture with a critical eye, but which are not without a sense of humor.
In early works, like "World Exclusive", Bugg created an archive of some of the most popular tag lines from gossip column magazines as a means of examining the repetitious motifs of sensationalism. Of course, "World Exclusive" is not just a comment on how 'the shock of the new' operates in the field of cultural production, but about how shock-value has become a rhetorical sales strategy where attention grabbing headlines act as something of a punch line in the popular press and the artworld alike. This deconstructive act, of trying to redress the valences of culture with a little and a big C, is something that is carried forward through Bugg's various bodies of work, and which implicates the viewer in trying to understand different modes of reception, pleasure and acquiescence.
This is perhaps, most evident, in Bugg's second series of dual images called "Compare and Contrast". Here, Bugg selected to display a series of mirrored stock images from the front cover of today's most popular 'rag mags', giving us a strategic sampling of celebrity stock photo's that represent a cultural echo-camber of sorts. Bugg's project reveals the hidden duplicity between text and image where the same pictures are used over and over again by the media to represent different and sometimes wholly conflicting stories. Only in these images, Bugg has subtracted the headlines and the attending copy, thus allowing the cutout text to act as a productive absence in a pictorial vernacular that already suffers from over-exposure. This reconfiguration leaves us with a twofold act of dis-indentification, first of an image without a text, and then of an image stripped of its context. Of course, this points to how tenuous the connection is between a sensational story and its visual representation. Not unlike the split between signifier and signified, whose relationship is entirely arbitrary, Bugg's interventions make us aware of how the cultural imaginary is not only constructed by the play of 'floating' signifiers, but how this is reinforced by the industrial uses and abuses of high profile imagery.
Subsequent bodies of work, such as "Mash-Ups", contrast the motifs of high and low culture by excising the negative space of the celebrity appearances page of so many popular magazines, and then inscribing quotes from famous literary authors in the marginalia of the image. This produces a kind of dissonance by highlighting the slippage that occurs between artistic disciplines, the expectations of enculturation and the language of different historical epochs, all of which allow us to gain an added measure of distance on the cultural 'interests' of today. Afterall, the mash-up is a lyrical stratagem of the present based on juxtaposition, montage and synthesis, but which can also be spun backwards as well as forwards. By courting a sense of temporal displacement, Bugg's "Mash-Up's" create a second unconscious operation that is not wholly unlike spinning a record in reverse to pick up a second series of hidden messages. Afterall, what is spun backward in "Mash-Ups" is the idea of history as a record of our cultural times. Except that in Bugg's work, we can also see how the voices of other era's can be played forward, over and against the presuppositions of the present, while still acting in reverse by virtue of the joining these simultaneous registers in a single work of art. Of course, creating this kind of pictorial suture, which relies on sampling, re-mixing, and layering information, is itself, the very definition of the contemporary mash-up.
Further developing the same set of critical strategies is "Target Audience", a performative work done with Ryan Peter Miller which invited the art going public to be pictured as part of their own revolutionary movement, pointing to the profound ability of capitalism to make use of counter-culture dis-indentification as yet another means of group-think. Of course, there is a moment of double reflexivity in such a scenario, which already operates inside the set-up that is bounded by the ideological function of the white cube, ultimately conflating two sites of revolutionary gestures, one aesthetic, the other political. Participation here takes on a tri-part function then, acting as a mediator between the image of radical commitment in politics and the aesthetic distance of judgment. Thus, in "Target Audience" the act of being pictured presents us with an image of the excluded middle, or of the petit Bourgeois pleasure of playing at being something other than representatives of the status quo, thus connecting the notion of occupying two roles at the same time, i.e., that of the absolute insider in cultural politics who momentarily embraces the trappings of a manufactured 'outsider' status.
By contrast, pieces like "Trading Cards" which created a series of nip-slip shots to be dispensed in the gallery, point to the neurotic obsession not just with examining peoples private lives, but also with having a look at their private parts. This rather unseemly underside of paparazzi culture, which appeals to our base desires for 'rare' moments of indiscretion or wardrobe malfunctions, is perhaps not wholly unlike the fetishization of the 'happy accident' or the improvisational gesture in art making, both of which are given value for their superfluous qualities. Thus, the idea of connoisseurship is here associated with catching a rare glimpse of the obscene, which is implicated in the critique of the values of high culture as form of dilettantism at it worst. As with all of Bugg's projects, the dialectic tension between intimate access and figures of inaccessibility is put on display in its fullest measure.
Bugg's next series of works utilized the contrast of obfuscation and identification, in the series called "Sweet and Low", which consisted of saccharin images of today's pop femininity covered over with a strong coat of hardened sugar. Of course, this conceptually driven strategy highlights the encrusted layer of 'sweet' expectations that are levied on today's women, first by being forced to inhabit the 'lowly' status of an objectified thing for popular consumer desires, and second, by being expected to refrain from protesting the economic, social, and political gap for fair and equal representation. Again, we find that taste is the central motif on display here, in the most figurative and literal way. The taste for beauty, which has slowly morphed over the course of the twentieth century from average proportions to the most extreme and unachievable of designs, is directly implicated in forcing us to rethink how the past informs the present, which everywhere demands that women give us just 'a little more sugar'. Sugar is that coated signifier for the masculine position of dominant and imposing patriarchal power. From Mel Gibson's famous 'sugar tits' outburst, to the racial implications of statements like, 'just give me a little of that brown sugar', to the much more general connotations of sweetness as a subject position that is attributed to women as a 'gendered attribute', all of the above point not just to the proliferation of a kind of artificial sweetness toward the 'other', but to a set of aesthetic expectations for women that might be called 'aesthetic sweeteners', i.e., Botox injections, liposuction, plastic surgery, etc. In all of these turns of phrase, we see not only how Bugg's project "Sweet and Low" is about the constructed nature of beauty, but also how the hidden subject position of patriarchy is allowed to remain both "Nasty and High" through the unquestioned status of 'hottie' consumption.
A more recent collaboration with Molly Mendoza produced a series of works entitled "Only the Good". This series highlights our cultural obsession with death and fame by juxtaposing, and sometimes superimposing, the image of a deceased pop culture icon onto a form of graphic symbolism whose visual tenor points to the many ways in which the height of fame is often haunted by the twilight of fast living gone awry. Again, Bugg is able to bring together two opposing idiograms by mixing photographic imagery with the more illustrative style of street graphics, thus upsetting the binary relationship accorded to popular motifs and iconoclasm. What is most striking about such pieces is the trade off of between hand crafted imagery and mass production; between touch and mechinic reproduction; between personal interventions and high level corporate-consumer aesthetics. Of course, this same play of dual agency is itself taken up and reinforced by Bugg's own collaborative impulses, which reinforce the relation between form and content. In fact, we might go so far as to say that Bugg's projects are aimed at moving the aesthetics of interventionism involved in detournment into a more participatory realm which looks as much at the potential use of the image as the politics of spectatorship.
And yet, while all of these pieces provide us with a critical commentary on the times we live in, it is in Bugg's most recent re-appropriative acts that we find something decidedly new taking place. Having judiciously worked through the highs and the lows of high and low culture, and the paradoxes of captivation, capricious relations, and outright capitalization, Bugg has introduced a soft touch in his newest pieces that allows the viewer to examine the delicacy of the image in the round. Both transparent and somewhat translucent, Bugg now suspends some of his images in lucite and hangs other suspended out from the gallery wall, not only to allow the viewer a greater distance of examination but also to emphasize the paper thin quality of high gloss simulacrum.
Demarcating something of a moment of maturation in Bugg's artistic practice, this new body of work trusts the viewer not only to see through the image, both literally and figuratively, but to examine their own understanding of the pervasive influence of commercial culture. Bugg does this by playing with the design aesthetic that acts as the engine of today's advertising industry, subtracting parts of the image through a piecemeal operation, all the while working to transform the slick quality of magazine tear out sheets into an art object meant for a different kind of auratic consumption. In this way, Bugg introduces a productive indeterminacy into his recent body of work that oscillates between pattern and figuration, positive and negative space, instant obsolescence and enduring permanence.
Thus, we are left to wonder if these are monuments to a culture of disposability or if we are being entreated to further dissect the theater of seduction that is the society of hyper-spectacle. And perhaps this is the great purchase of Bugg's project in the contemporary moment, that by projecting shadowy figures of fashionista's and the patterns of culture on the gallery walls, Bugg has consolidated the insights that followed from his previous bodies of work into an allegory that joins the questions of high culture with cultural production in the largest possible sense. Not only that, but by approaching these images with a forensic intensity, Bugg's work allows us to take note of how the ideology of the image is something we are always already chained to, even when we imagine ourselves to be free.
Bio: Peter Bugg holds a B.A. in economics from the University of Chicago and an M.F.A. in photography from Arizona State University. Since 2011, he has served as the director of the student galleries at ASU, where he teaches classes in exhibiton design and professional development. He has participated in numerous local, national and international exhibitions. In 2014, he created #Selfiecentered public art installation at the Scottsdale Quarter and he was awarded a 'Good 'n Plenty' grant from the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art to pursue his project Equal Scouts. His most recent project was an installation piece at Tempe MOCA.