Here’s the Beef
by Kathy Battista
An ambitious work in both scale and concept, Car Meat 2019 can be shown in various manifestations. It is an installation of metal forms that are suspended from a trolley or hang from the ceiling nearby. Comprised of a metal hanging system (signed FR 19 in welding at its base) similar to one that might be found in an industrial abattoir, several large metal hooks (ranging from one to six) appear as menacing as they are orderly, and support a different colored metal element; Car Meat can also be shown with as little as one colored slab hanging by a hook while the remaining components are propped or scattered in close proximity. Indeed, the individual slabs in this iteration can resemble bodies dispersed violently from a car crash, flung like pieces of offal in a butcher’s shop.
Each hanging slab is a piece of automobile scrap metal that the artist has detached, steam cleaned, sand blasted, cut, primed, sanded, and painted. While they may look as polished as the surface of a new car, each element has been painstakingly created through laborious effort; their irregular surfaces reflecting the physicality of the processes that the artist uses. Rogers draws shapes and then creates patterns that she cuts at an auto body shop rather than a pristine artist’s studio. These pieces intentionally resemble different cuts of steak, including ribeye, NY strip, and top sirloin. They can also look like other forms found in nature, including flocks of birds or sexual organs: phalluses and breasts appear in only black or white. The remaining steak forms are painted in the colors most popular with automotive consumers: shiny white, brilliant red, metallic silver, cerulean blue, deep black, and a cheerful yellow. The color and treatment of the surface gives the sculptures such a sensuous eminence that the desire to have a haptic experience is tangible—one can easily imagine the impulse to touch or stroke the sculptures.
Car culture has long been a fascination of artists, from playful examples like Sonia Delaunay’s patterned car that matched her textiles, which in turn derived from her paintings; Kenny Scharf’s psychedelic Cadillac with protruding wings; or Sterling Ruby’s apocalyptic school bus. British artist Richard Hamilton merged the curves of 1950s car chassis with female forms in his early paintings; and artists as disparate as Richard Prince and Judy Chicago have used car hoods as sculptural forms and painting surfaces. Fawn Rogers’ processes compare best to two artists with quite contrasting aesthetics: John Chamberlain and Teresa Margolles. Rogers uses the industrial aesthetic akin to Chamberlain’s ambitious, heavy sculptures. In Car Meat the forms could be detumescent Chamberlains or Calder elements. Ideologically, Rogers is also aligned with Teresa Margolles, who has used the shattered windshields from fatal accidents and narco violence to transform the glass into small sculptures that mimic fine jewelry. Rogers similarly prefers to find scrap metal pieces that have impact from car crashes, carrying the memory of that violent event. One can’t help but mention Warhol here and his astute observation of our society’s insatiable thirst for images of death and destruction.
In addition to the comparison with Warhol’s series, the composition of Car Meat, resembling racks of animal flesh hanging from butcher hooks, also calls to mind classical art historical references that span the history of painting from Haim Soutine to England’s Kitchen Sink School painters and Francis Bacon. Many have considered these predecessors as depicting the existential crisis of the human condition and the man-made violence inflicted upon our world. As Darwin acknowledged, only the fittest survive. Rogers likewise acknowledges this brutality in Car Meat, in particular that of humanity’s destruction of our planet through our desire for capitalist luxuries and convenience; both the automobile and the cattle industries are two of the largest causes of environmental crises today through global warming. Indeed, we exist in the Anthropocene ephoch, named as such due to the irreversible effect that humans have had on the planet.
Car Meat, however, is also a celebration of life. The fact that as humans we embody a consciousness that can ponder ethical and moral complexities is a wonder that transcends our mortality. Indeed, each of us make hundreds of decisions daily that impact others around us as well as mother earth. How do we strike a balance between what we want—beautiful vehicles, red meat, bottled water, tomatoes shipped to Los Angeles from Italy—and the possibility of a simpler life that might be more respectful of the longevity of our planet? We all crave shiny, well-designed things, but many of us are also in an internal dialogue about how we can save our planet. This struggle between pleasure and the human machine is a classical theme. Fawn Rogers, in Car Meat, elegantly and effectively sums up this dialectic—of being human and playing a role of the destruction of a planet that we love so much. Rogers doesn’t preach or propose solutions; rather, she opens a dialogue that each of us has to reflect upon.
Rogers has said, “I want to set up a tent for a month at Pick Your Part and enjoy the conversation with all the personalities and the retired and damaged beyond repair cars, trucks and vans." Out of destruction, she finds beauty, on both physical and metaphysical levels. Consider the Hindu goddess Kali, the counterpart of Shiva the destroyer, typically shown with blue skin and flaming red eyes, who reminds us to move beyond our ego and the flesh of human form in order to reach a spiritual enlightenment. The goddess can be fearsome, but to a mature soul she is sweet, nurturing and overflowing with love. Rogers’ Car Meat suggests this ambivalence, so directly related to our human condition: how do get beyond the ego, the desire for pleasure and gratification, and elevate to a realm that is more sustainable and in commune with the future of civilization? I don’t think any of us has that answer, but we need to keep asking ourselves the question.