Ryan Duggan, Happiness Boot Camp, 2013

Have a Guinness. Pond’s Extract For All Pain. The Greatest Buick Ever Built. Advertisements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often used straightforward, common language and an imperative or declarative tone to provide basic product information and persuade people to buy their items. Later, as new modes of mechanized production flooded the marketplace with consumer goods (especially in the post-WWII consumption boom), advertisers were forced to craft more subliminal approaches, essentially abandoning the products themselves and shifting focus to the brand: a collection of references to an experience or lifestyle. Consumers were thus encouraged to view products as extensions of themselves and as ways to actualize and communicate their sense of self.1 Consumption became less about commodities and more about signs and signifiers,2 a strategy that continues today.

As they advanced into the 21st century, ads increasingly took the form of ambiguous and disorienting image-text combinations that left viewers to sort out the meaning – such as Panera’s use of quotes from Henry David Thoreau and other transcendentalist writers to extol its salads and smoothies, or Coca-Cola’s promotion of its low- and no-calorie beverages as instruments in the fight against obesity.

This vacuum of ambiguity and disorientation provides a tactical framework for the paintings and sculptures in Ryan Duggan’s solo show Low-Dose No-Doz, which opened September 6th at Johalla Projects.

In this new exhibition, Duggan continues his trajectory of engaging the strategies of modern advertising. Employing simple materials such as household paints and everyday found objects, Duggan pays homage to the traditions of stylized typography and the manual labor of sign-making. Coupled with his conflation of terse but catchy textual arrangements that hearken back to advertising’s more primitive communication methods, the works offer a two-fold questioning of contemporary advertising practices.

Ryan Duggan, These Shingles, 2013

Ryan Duggan, These Shingles, 2013

In These Shingles (2013), Duggan’s witty use of text brings to mind some aspects of Ruscha’s word paintings, while also invoking the folksy language of sly salesmanship: the bold phrasing of “These shingles will outlast your marriage […] and that is guaranteed” dominates the panel, framing the vivid rendering of a modest ranch home set aback by a verdant front lawn. Duggan’s text-image pairing opens the piece to interpretation as an allusion to advertising’s habit of codifying or reinforcing social norms (in this case, implications about domesticity and homeownership expectations, the sanctity of marriage, and “keeping one’s house in order.”)

Two anchor pieces of the exhibition, Happiness Boot Camp (2013) and Low-Dose No-Doz (2013), are hung on opposing vantage points in the gallery and comprised of large latex lettering across colorful canvas banners that seem ready to install at any mall or shopping plaza. Duggan seamlessly injects punchy phrases here that capture one of the greater conundrums of advertising and consumption: the supposition of shopping as a panacea (or as its commonly labeled nowadays, “retail therapy”) that can be seen in the proliferation of medicinal, pharmaceutical, or other similar products branded as “curative” throughout the marketplace. Yet the concept seems slightly oxymoronic in how advertising often offers consumer goods as solutions to the exact insecurities and anxieties that the ads concurrently stoke to heighten the appeal of their messages and induce more purchases. This cycle has produced a growing sense of agitation or displeasure amongst many modern consumers, who experience what sociologist Colin Campbell calls “a state of enjoyable discomfort”,3 a phrase that relates to the emotional (Happiness) and physiological (No-Doz) concerns that Duggan references.

Happiness Boot Camp conjures comical images of an intense drill sergeant-style salesperson spitting and screaming in one’s face that, like it or not, “you will find satisfaction and self-actualization through shopping, goddamnit!” On the other end, Low-Dose No-Doz emulates the therapeutic ethos of ads while jabbing at some of the inane orthographic tendencies in product naming and sloganeering (i.e. No-Doz, X-Acto, Play-Doh, etc).4

Ryan Duggan, King of Kings, 2013

Ryan Duggan, King of Kings, 2013

Duggan’s smallest painting in the gallery might be his most enigmatic: King of Kings (2013) depicts a vintage can of Budweiser adorned with a crown of thorns, a wicked mixture of two weighty and seemingly contradictory cultural/religious symbols. Both are given Duggan’s dark humor treatment. The lampooning of the Christ reference might seem objectionable to some, until one considers its link to the wider commoditization of religious iconography. Meanwhile, the “crowning” of Budweiser as the top-selling beer company in America is reduced to an unglamorous presentation of a solitary can displaced from the glossy allure of the store displays and advertisements that aided its commercial success.

One final notion that King of Kings illustrates, and that applies to Duggan’s entire exhibition, is the artist’s tricky relation to a Pop Art sensibility. Many critics of Pop have detailed that by seeking to minimize distinctions between high and low art and aligning their works and processes with the industrialized nature of mass-produced consumer objects, Pop practitioners such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg or others also risked those artworks becoming entirely homogenous with consumer objects.5

Duggan’s work navigates a comparable tightrope. He simultaneously derides and indulges in the frivolities of contemporary life (with its absurdity and depravity) through an approach that balances dark cynicism with cautious optimism. While his appropriation of advertising’s communicative lexicon might not go as far as the guerilla style of, say, the Billboard Liberation Front6,  Duggan nonetheless achieves a clever detournement and irreverently turns commercial phraseology away from its original purpose. His form of creative resistance recontextualizes and leverages advertising’s power, blending disarming humor with an adaptable insouciance, and ultimately encapsulates something of Certeau’s notion of “the art of being in between.”7 As viewers we receive a similar invitation: like reading a particularly sardonic yet hilarious article in The Onion,8 we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Low-Dose No-Doz is on view at Johalla Projects, 1821 W. Hubbard St. ste. #209, through September 30th. All photographs courtesy of Johalla Projects.

  1. For example, see Apple’s “Get a Mac” advertising campaign from 2006-2009, which not only drew oversimplified distinctions between the two products’ features and capabilities, but also subliminally referenced character stereotypes about PCs being the territory of stuffy, boring, old business types, and Macs as the domain of the hip and innovative youth demographic.
  2. That is, the relationship between the signified (i.e. the product) and the signifier (i.e. the product’s meaning, imbued with cultural symbols and associations, as constructed by the advertisement).
  3. Quoted in Todd Gitlin, Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives, Owl Books, 2002 (pg. 79)
  4. These types of intentional misspellings or re-spellings are somewhat difficult to classify, as their variety encompasses many of the traits of neologisms, nonce words, or portmanteau. Maybe the best approach is to lump them all into the category of “Sniglet”, itself a neologism coined by comedian Rich Hall as “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should.”
  5. See Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, Sage Publications, 1998 (pp. 114-121; as well as George Ritzer’s  introduction, pg. 16).
  6. Billboard Liberation Front’s famous reworking of a Kent cigarette billboard to say “Kant. The Choice is Heteronomy” is especially noteworthy.
  7. Ethnologist Michel de Certeau proposes “the art of being in between” as a tactic to functioning within a consumer culture while also being cognizant of (and not succumbing to) its temptations (see Naomi Klein, No Logo, Picador, 2002 (pg. 78)).
  8. In a discussion about advertising, perhaps The Onion’s recent “Subtember 11th” parody ad for Subway would be most poignant.