4.13 / Review

The Modern Monster

By Matt Sussman April 6, 2013

“What kind of monster are you?” is the chorus from a single by the ’90s pop-punk group Slant 6.1 The question accuses the listener of being something other than human. However, the singer-guitarist Christina Billotte’s flat delivery also invites the listener to self-identify as non-human: what kind of monster are you? Monstrousness, then, is a condition from which we recoil even as we uneasily recognize its latent potential within us. High points of terror in horror movies often coalesce around scenes in which characters are confronted with the realization that the monster is like them or is in fact one of them—a recurring moment of recognition frequently accompanied by graphic representations of bodily disintegration or somatic disorder.

The artists in The Modern Monster, a whip-smart yet wonderfully unpretentious group show at Queen’s Nails curated by Jeanne Gerrity, consider with both seriousness and humor the hovering existential threat posed by the monstrous. (Disclosure: Gerrity is a contributor to Art Practical.) Gerrity borrows her exhibition’s title from an essay by Lars Bang Larsen that offers a post-Marxist reading of the zombie—the monster with perhaps the most current pop-cultural cachet—as an ambiguous figure for capitalism’s perfected condition, in which subjects are alienated beyond death itself.2 Larsen’s zombie is the last gasp of monster-as-metaphor and the final turn of the screw that collapses both external and self-ascribed alienation onto one chaotic non-being. Although the works in The Modern Monster aren’t nearly as polemical as Larsen’s thesis, many of them opt for methods and materials that formalize the messy business of unbecoming that he traces over the course of his essay.

In the gallery’s front room, George Pfau’s three oil paintings and accompanying trio of chromogenic prints (all from 2013) of scenes from classic and contemporary zombie movies are exemplary in this regard. For the paintings, Pfau has reproduced shots in which the zombies occupy the middle distance, his short, thick strokes of paint emphasizing the surrounding landscape as much as the ambling figures within it. Viewed from across the room, the populated town square in Landscape (Shaun of the Dead) bears a passing resemblance to one of Pissaro’s Montmartre street scenes. But Pfau pushes what could have merely been an art historical joke into far darker territory. Here, Post-Impressionism’s perceptual blurring of figure and ground becomes a formal expression of the zombie’s liminal state as the living dead, something familiarly human from afar but threatening in its abjectness when encountered up close. This telescoping is taken to its graphic extreme in the corresponding set of photographs, hung opposite the paintings, in which a single zombie from each landscape is enlarged to almost life-size proportions. Less detail shots than abstract compositions, the photographs dissemble figurative painting down to its blood and guts: the material excrescence of oil paint, dust, and brush hairs on canvas.

Anthony Discenza. The Things, 2006 (video still); color and black and white; digital video; 1:30. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Valerie Hegarty’s George Washington Melted 4 (2011), which hangs in the gallery’s rear room, takes a different tack in its breakdown(meltdown?) of representational painting. After first meticulously reproducing a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s famous 1796 portrait of George Washington, Hegarty then just as carefully altered it so the painting appears as if it had weathered an acid attack or excised something far more malevolent. Hegarty’s work frequently involves the staged defacement of early American art and design—from portraits to full-on period-appropriate interiors—and suggests there is something inherently malevolent at the heart of such an endeavor as the codification of a nationalist aesthetic, even one that ostensibly celebrates freedom and democracy.

Akin to the grotesque split visage of Hegarty’s Washington is Anthony Discenza’s adjacent digital video, The Things (2006). Discenza cleverly overlays scenes from Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) with thematically or compositionally similar scenes from John Carpenter’s far more gruesome 1982 remake, The Thing, creating a feedback loop of imitation and appropriation that mirrors the parasitic extraterrestrial antagonists of both narratives.3

The terror of the thing in The Things lies in not knowing who is a friend and who is the monster; killing off all of one’s friends becomes the only recourse to survival. Whether at the ends of the Earth, as in Carpenter’s or Hawks-Nyby’s Antarctic research stations, or in the middle of civilization, as in the zombie-filled landscapes painted by Pfau, it is terribly exhausting to live in the world Larsen theorizes, a world devoid of the certainty that death will finally sever us from the beast within. But, nonetheless, it’s the world in which we live. Our concept of mortality has been attenuated by the many active and passive virtual presences accumulated across a physical lifetime. In light of this fact, Michelle Blade’s crude plaster urn (2013), intended to hold the ashes of her burnt paintings, comes off like a quaint relic. Like Pfau’s pieces, the sculpture also doubles as a sly comment on the many deaths and near-deaths that painting has suffered in recent years, but its mordant implications make it difficult for one to laugh too lightly.

Valerie Hegarty. George Washington Melted 4, 2011; canvas, stretcher, paper, acrylic paint, and gel medium; 40 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, New York.

“The zombie pushes a horizon of empty time ahead of it; whether that time will be messianic or apocalyptic is held in abeyance,” Larsen writes.4 Conversely, there can be no return to a “before,” a point at which we weren’t these things, forever decomposing as we lurch toward a satiety that can never be achieved. Here, Discenza’s works on paper that resemble frontispieces ripped straight from vintage horror paperbacks are instructive. The excerpted scenes in medias res written by the artist in appropriately purple prose, of protagonists recognizing ghastly visages as their own and heeding the call of the undead, serve as due warnings: there is nothing to separate us from what we already are or are destined to become.


The Modern Monster is currently on view at Queen’s Nails, in San Francisco, through April 20, 2013.


  1. Slant 6, “What Kind of Monster Are You?” Dischord Records, 1993.
  2. Lars Bang Larsen, “Zombies of Immaterial Labor: The Modern Monster and the Death of Death,” e-flux, 2010.
  3. The thematic similarities between Hegarty’s and Discenza’s pieces continue to resonate, the more one knows about the histories of their respective sources. Although the portrait of Washington was never officially finished, Stuart retained and used it to paint one hundred thirty copies, which he sold in his lifetime for one hundred dollars each. The painting also became the basis for the likeness of Washington on the one-dollar bill that’s been in circulation for more than a century and has become one of the best-known works of American art, by sight if not by name. Similarly, John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? served as the basis for both Hawks-Nyby’s and Carpenter’s cinematic adaptations, as well as 2011’s The Thing, itself a prequel to the Carpenter version that nonetheless leeches off that film’s status as a classic of contemporary horror cinema.
  4. Larsen, Ibid.

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