Opening: West Chelsea Contemporary’s ‘Icons and Vandals’ Exalts Art’s Great Provocateurs

Above image: Time Door, Time D’or, James Rosenquist,

It could readily be argued that contemporary art has been playing it far too safe these days, especially when you consider that four neo-fascist years under President 45 barely elicited a cultural response. And we must admit that we never stop hoping for a new dada, fluxus…or even another collective like Damien Hirst and the YBAs – who were effective enough to have Rudy Giuliani attempt to ban them – to come along and give necessary offense to the established order.

But another purpose of provocation in art is to kick against what is actually considered acceptable in the art world. And so we’re very much enthused that New York’s West Chelsea Contemporary has assembled the new, tellingly titled show Icons and Vandals, which gathers notable works by some of the late 20th Century / early 21st Century’s most proficient provocateurs. Lindsay Hamm, the gallery’s Director of Curation and Acquisitions reveals that the concept was partly to encourage investigation into exactly what it means for a once controversial work to later become iconic.

Product of My Environment, King Saladeen

“As the name of the exhibition signifies,” she explains, “all of the artists featured in Icons and Vandals have subverted the norms of the contemporary art world throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries. These artists have distinguished themselves by challenging their contemporaries with something completely new or contrarian, and in this way, the exhibition asserts that the titles of ‘icon’ and ‘vandal’ are not mutually exclusive.”

Hirst is one the marquee names featured in the show, as well as Banksy creation Mr. Brainwash, and Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, who was harassed and arrested by his own government for making overt political statements. Also included is controversial NFT proponent Beeple, who has most certainly upset the balance by significantly elevating digital work in the art world hierarchy. Rightfully, legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen‘s iconic shot of John Lennon will also take its considerable place in the exhibition, with music photography at last now being considered alongside fine art.

Untitled (Brown), Fiona Rae

A few of Icons and Vandals‘ most fascinating pieces will be another YBA Fiona Rae’s Untitled (Brown), 1994, Braddock Steel’s Swoon (a hymn to the closing of Pennsylvania steel factories), and King Saladeen‘s Product of My Environment. The latter grew up in tough West Philadelphia, and has gone on to imprint his inimitable street art style on major corporate clients like Nike and Mercedes.

But Hamm likes to think of provocation as simply another tool for artists to employ in expressing a point of view that may put them at odds with accepted cultural, social or political norms.

Icons and Vandals asserts that the provocational edge found within contemporary art is inherent to newly formed artistic movements, and challenging norms is both fundamental and critical. Pop artists, for instance, while deemed icons today, initially provoked the art world by borrowing from popular culture and employing techniques of repetition. This show aims to present how today‚Äôs icons were vandals of their time and the vandals of today are the icons of tomorrow.”

A unique window, then, into the possible future of art.

Icons and Vandals opens at West Chelsea Contemporary on April 23, and runs through May 21.

Above images from top:

The Moon, Mari Kim

Swoon, Braddock Steel

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