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ArtArt ReviewMadonna bong, individualist protest signs offer sly balance at...

Madonna bong, individualist protest signs offer sly balance at pt. 2 Gallery

Cliff Hengst and John DeFazio create glimmering look at queer histories and identities.

In a dazzling exhibition, Oakland gallery pt. 2 pairs longtime Bay Area artists Cliff Hengst and John De Fazio. Within the stark white gallery, Hengst presents eight modest-sized vibrantly colored protest sign paintings and abstractions; De Fazio displays four series of expertly glazed, detailed ceramic bongs and funerary urns. With Hengst’s larger practice of performance and painting and De Fazio’s campy mash-ups, the very formal exhibition provides focus to the artists’ strong color and pop culture references. Most importantly, beneath the work’s glimmering visual impact, the artists engage in coded layers of meaning, where celebration, protest, and solemn memorials offer a range of experiences and moments in the politics and aesthetics of queer histories and identities.

John De Fazio, “ACT UP Zombie Gnome” (2017). Glazed ceramic

Of De Fazio’s most impactful works, his series of four ceramic funerary urns merges playful fairies, gnomes, and pop-culture figurines with tragic loss. In “ACT-UP Zombie Gnome” (2017), the artist transforms a gnome into the two faces of Janus. On one sides, De Fazio presents a jolly gnome in psychedelic colors carrying a wheelbarrow of brightly dotted yellow, pink, and blue bones; on the opposing side, the gnome’s hat becomes a skull, his jacket is emblazoned with “ACT UP,” and a pink triangle patch sits on his shoulder. 30 years after ACT UP’s founding, the artist explicitly memorializes and pays homage to the landmark AIDS activist organization, which began in New York in 1987. Through the form of funerary urns, De Fazio’s work also operates as vessels to contain and memorialize the spirit of the deceased. Like a third eye, a hole penetrates the gnome’s forehead, suggesting a portal for the spirit. Astutely, De Fazio flips the pleasantries that are conventionally associated with craft and infuses it with the personal and political.

Cliff Hengst, “Sign #5 (2023). Acrylic on paper
Cliff Hengst, “Sign #3” (2023). Acrylic on paper

Hanging on the wall directly behind De Fazio’s urns, Hengst’s “Sign #5” (2023) stands almost as a caption. In the protest sign painting, Hengst’s primary green and red bold lettering states, ”GET MAD AND THEN DON’T.” In the sparse declaration, the artist makes a calls to honor one’s anger, but also to move onwards. Hengst possibly suggests a cautionary statement about the potential destructiveness of living in anger over the longterm. Here, he mixes the political and personal, such that dissent is balanced with self-care and sustenance. Drawing upon text-based Conceptualism, political life, and the personal, Hengst plays between surface reading and more nuanced messaging.

Hengst’s mix of personal and political slogans are reinforced in “Sign #3” (2023), which simply states “MY REASONS ARE MY OWN” and “Sign #4” (2023), where “EVERYONE” emerges from a network of intersecting lines. In encouraging self-acceptance and acceptance of others, Hengst claims a space for the individual in a format that is usually preoccupied with the largess of politicians, bureaucracy, and injustice.

John De Fazio, “Michael Jackson Wiz Pipe” (2017). Glazed ceramic

Hengst’s individualist protest signs nicely resonate with De Fazio’s bongs that commemorate Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Elvis (1994—2017). As unapologetic and decidedly fabulous pop culture icons, these celebrities offered coded layers of meaning beyond mainstream culture. De Fazio again pushes the border of acceptable decorum by memorializing them in the form of bongs, fusing drug tchotchke with the rarefied language of contemporary art.

Beneath the humor and camp references in De Fazio’s urns and bongs, the artist suggests the transformation and transcendence of smoke and ash. As drugs and death move us beyond our physical and mundane lives, there’s also an alchemical process reinforced in De Fazio’s use of ceramics, a discipline traditionally centered on making vessels and kiln firing.

Most engagingly, De Fazio and Hengst offer a sly balance between surface readings and underlying message, such that playfulness and literalness are sometimes foils for deeply personal and political statements. Clearly, De Fazio and Hengst are keenly aware of the histories that they quote and transgress as they push and pull their viewers through a range of references and feelings.

CLIFF HENGST AND JOHN DE FAZIO runs through June 17. pt. 2, Oakland. More info here.

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Genevieve Quick
Genevieve Quick
Genevieve Quick is an interdisciplinary artist and arts writer. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, cmagazine, and Art Practical.

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