Review by Travis Diehl
In Crucifix/Strip Mine, an illuminated cross beams from a forested hill above the sodium bulbs of the town below; the next hill over is ragged with terraces: heavenly aspirations and earthly greed, side by side. It is the sort of irony that makes the world the world. Throughout Ron Pollard’s photo essay We Kill Everything, largely shot in late 2016, the Colorado suburbs render up several such contradictions: Prison/Golf; Fracking Field/Residental Development; Crucifix/Cell Tower. Yet the more of these juxtapositions that arise, the clearer it becomes that such antithetical uses aren’t always at cross purposes. In fact, the broad cultural spheres that Pollard explores, from religion and consumerism to industry and art, not only overlap, but seem to make each other possible. In this light, Pollard’s coolly architectural shot of a 1,800 Car Parking Garage at the National Renewable Energy Resources Laboratory makes perfect sense. This is America, after all. This is 2016. And where there is no pure world, there can be no pure photograph.
The official motto of the United States remains E Pluribus Unum; yet the mood is more Love it or Leave it. One doesn’t have to look long to find hypocrisy, or to frame up deep divides. In this regard, Pollard lets his politics show. His Vandalized Trump is straightforward – a crummy little billboard of the stumping Presidential candidate, to which someone has appended a Hitler moustache. Pollard’s shot of a Trump/Pence rally (Trump/Pence, 2016) is darker, more embedded: a deep field of suburbs and trees in fall colours give way, in the middle ground, to a crowd in red and blue converging on a nondescript office park, an American Flag, a Trump/Pence banner and a beige building marked Gun Club. The bottom third is filled with (presumably) the constituents’ cars and trucks, a portrait of the lower-middle class accented by a toxic green Jeep Rubicon. The meaning of the vandalism in the former image is self-evident, while the crowd in the latter is portrayed as manipulable and muddled.
Whose country is this? Certainly not mine, say the so-called cultural elites. But the world described in Pollard’s series is one to which we most certainly belong: that of malls and airports, conference rooms and school rooms – indeed, a global system of congruencies that transcends party and national lines. It rings true, for instance, that violence is a major US export. One photo shows the unremarkable exterior of a Century megaplex cinema in Aurora, Colorado; the caption lists the twelve people who died there in a 2012 mass shooting during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The photo is also labelled (perhaps erroneously, perhaps not) with the date of another mass shooting at a recruitment center and a Navy Reserve base in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It almost doesn’t matter. Movies don’t make people kill people, but a culture of violence does. Meanwhile, at a gun show across town, Pollard photographs a booth selling Fifteen AR-15's – the assault rifle used in the Aurora massacre, among others. The scope and the theatre of real violence stand cheek by jowl. The culture industry and the gun lobby both do their part to confuse profit for freedom. In Pollard’s photos, a student/teacher conference room at a charter school and a corporate board room look interchangeable. If, to paraphrase Allan Sekula, ‘school is a factory’, it is also a corporation – perhaps a defense contractor. Industrial Scale Education, Columbine High School gives a drone’s-eye view of the site of America’s most infamous school shooting. Another, unpeopled shot shows a decommissioned nuclear missile that serves, in the driveway of a public middle school, as a kind of sculpture.
For those who still think art is above all this, Pollard won’t let us forget the similarities between rarified cultural infrastructure and the banal architecture of violence and judgment. Call it the art/entertainment-industrial complex, within which the congruence of school, factory, convention centre, airport, mall and museum expresses the architecture of the American Way: a capitalist surrealism that, in late 2016, is no less effective for looking shabby. Sometimes the violence seems incidental, even accidental: in a photo of the Denver Art Museum, a canted pile of aluminum volumes by Daniel Libeskind that looks as if a cube has taken down an Imperial Star Destroyer, a pitiful yellow stanchion is in place to keep visitors safe from ice sliding off the jagged eaves. Elsewhere it’s clear that art is actively bellicose. In a photo titled Needlessly Menacing Cultural Advertisement, blaring above the urban clutter is a huge banner for the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver that describes the artist’s heroic-modernist painting in outdated terms – that is, as hand-to-hand combat: ‘The canvas was his ally. The paint and trowel were his weapons. And the art world was his enemy.’
Why is an ad like this necessary – except if such rhetoric seems the only way for art to compete in a market defined by brutality? Gone is quiet self-evidence; culture, like many things besides, is a shouting match. Above a street corner cluttered with ‘visual pollution’ – a particularly American mix of sushi, pastrami, Puerto Rican and Middle Eastern restaurants, huddled beside an office tower – stands a billboard for an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum called Star Wars and the Power of Costume. Even clothes are called powerful. And ‘even art’ must bend towards the perceived lowest cultural denominator, running immersive ads masked as blockbuster shows. This is not a foible (Mercedes Benz at MOCA, Bjork at MoMA) exclusive to the heartland. All across America, from megaplex to museum, the Star Wars franchise proffers an allegory of good and evil, us and them, that passes for national myth. Yet it bears repeating that George Lucas based the Empire’s evil vibe on a mix of Third Reich regalia and American Minimalism. This isn’t their low culture to our high; this is culture, full stop. Art, I am your father.
So we’d be wise not to look with too much condescension on the Child with Star Wars Backpack whom Pollard photographs at the Denver International Airport, or the Star Wars Assassin Lunchbox he finds on a table in an elementary school. The point isn’t that the bovine masses do naïvely what desperate museums do resignedly – namely, consent to corporate brandwashing – but that slicked-up, dumbed-down violence is our common creed. If Pollard’s photos tell us something we don’t know, it’s because we haven’t been paying attention. Which is why it’s so crucial to turn the lens back at art. Artists and especially photographers in the modernist tradition are trained to cultivate decisive moments – differences, contradictions or clashes that might reverberate as truths. Pollard performs this task at the scale of socioeconomic shifts and fault lines. When Colorado goes for Clinton and for legal weed yet still seems to kill its own soul one gun club or private prison or Confederate flag t-shirt at a time, Pollard is there to take the shot. And while he does so without apologising for the other side, it’s not so clear where the deep divide actually lies; the ‘We’ of We Kill Everything easily includes liberals, artists and their institutions. One photo, captioned Condescending Cultural Branding/Advertisement, shows a magic-hour signscape: a Motel 6, a few passing cars. A light post, centre frame, stupidly cuts across a billboard for a Mark Mothersbaugh show at the MCA Denver called Myopia, which bears the tagline, ‘You will not leave normal’. But what is normal? And who decides? Forget Foucault; spend 2016 in even the most bland United States and you’ll find that ‘normal’ is a more varied, contradictory and damaged ideology than the pretentious weirding of mass art can imagine.
Ultimately, Pollard’s series is more descriptive than prescriptive. His project contains and resolves these cultural contradictions into a common failure – just as the deeply divided country also manages to do. Love it or leave it. Pollard pictures a country where, at the end of the day, we might shrug into a certain debunked white middle-American vision of a longneck craft beer as the wi-fi jukebox plays ‘Ain’t That America?’ It sure is, but only for some. The series takes its name from Kill Everything Rear Window Decal, which depicts the 1970s Chevy pickup on which Pollard spotted the sticker. Next to it on the glass is another that reads ‘We the People’. Flanking the truck as it idles at a crossroads are the motion-blurs of two American flags. Robert Frank showed an America that its citizens perhaps couldn’t see, or didn’t want to. The conflicted America of We Kill Everything is plain. The merciless dictum to kill them all is just one sticker on one window of one truck—and there are many more trucks, all waiting for the lights to change.