Julia Wachtel began her series of landscape format paintings in 1989, collating cartoon characters with images plucked from mainstream media: magazines, newspapers, television. In her second solo exhibition at Vilma Gold, Wachtel continues her fascination with the visual language of mass culture. Sourcing all of her images from the internet, the five works exhibited at Vilma Gold are composed of screenprints of recognisable referents presented alongside oil paintings of cartoon figures. These cartoon figures, we are told, are representations of the ‘everyman’; their purpose is to provoke a meditation on the cultural, ideological and political issues of their neighbouring images.
Although Wachtel does not directly comment on politics, entertainment, or consumer culture, her works incite us to consider the impact of mass media on the individual and collective consciousness. Spiderman, Walmart, Walter White (the lead character of the critically acclaimed TV series ‘Breaking Bad’): these are some of the images that dominate the white space of Vilma Gold. Wachtel pulls them apart, crops them, alters their dimensions, turns them upside down, repeats the same image in different scales. The power to distort reminds us of the fictitiousness of much of what is presented to us through mass media. In ‘Untitled (bad)’ (2015), the image of White dressed in his iconic fluorescent yellow hazmat suit, has been transformed into a static plastic toy. In ‘Sm, Med, Lg’ (2015), we see a repeated image of an underwear advertisement, flipped upside-down and altered to a different scale, separated by a strip of, what appears to be, skin or foundation make-up. The effect is disorientating; out of context and presented in this confined gallery in east London, the visual language of these popular images is stripped of original meaning.
Alongside her mass media screen prints, Wachtel has inserted grotesque cartoon characters that burst with exaggerated expression. Whereas language is confused in the screenprints, it is garishly emblazoned in Wachtel’s cartoon figures. Through stance, gesture and colour, they comment on the images of their adjoining canvases. In ‘mart’ (2015), Wachtel uses a screenprint of a Walmart store, with two repeated panels of an American flag erected outside the store. The result is a discourse on capitalism, mass production and the American consumer. Separating these prints are two identical, vibrantly coloured oil paintings of a cartoon figure, dressed in hipster gear and giving a thumbs-up. At first glance, the two images appear to be dramatically antithetical, the cartoon a representation of a liberal, anti-corporate individual. But Wachtel has included minute detail on her cartoon figure – Converse pumps, a tattoo of Mario (from Nintendo’s much-loved ‘Super Mario’) on his upper arm – which reminds us of the prevalence of consumer culture even in the most liberal of individuals. Her figures may be obtrusive in such a confined, neat gallery space but it is these defining elements that ensure the political, social and ideological commentary of Wachtel’s body of work does not go unheard.