BP is the unusual name for a two person collaborative team of artists from France. The name BP bears the authority and immediacy of corporate logo, having been ‘borrowed’ from a multinational gazoline company originating in Britain. But the direct simplicity and obfuscating anonymity of the letters « BP » lead you to think in terms of a complex corporation rather than an individual artist. This is the intent.
First encounters with the work of BP are striking, as layer upon layer of familiar elements and impressions are revealed, gradually releasing the tension of the viewer’s search for recognition and identification.The formal qualities of the work, its balance, its hard rectilinear forms, its finished, glistening, metallic surfaces, and unique, seductive appearance of wet, black oil- all exude a strong sense of affirmation and confidence. But in the process of uncovering the range of properties BP exploit in constructing their objects, installations, and « oil paintings » a foreboding sense of discomfort or desorientation emerges.
While Andy Warhol made fun (of fine art and popular culture) in piling Brillo boxes in the center of a gallery, BP’s vertical stacks of 44 gallon oil drums injects a nascent quality of conspiracy or danger into the aesthetic mix. Their gesture carries a deeply ironic undertone that suggests a much larger policy of collusion or corruption then an evanescent consumer capitalism. The simultaneous embrace and critic of a popular culture inherent in Warhol’s playful strategies and eclectic sources is honed and refined by BP into a singular reference to the ubiquitous culture of the twentieth century- the products of ‘mobility’ and the hard- edged technologies of transportation. BP grapples with the high stakcs of big business through a critique of the dominant modern world economic commodity, oil. Modernism, driven and dominated, behind the scenes, by the supply and demand for oil to satisfy the dramatic expansion of industry and technology, has engendered an endemic sense of alienation and dislocation in commmunities and cultures by stepping up the mass production and distribution of crude commodities. Cultural differences are increasingly elided, and then homogenized, as communication and cultural exchange become more and more transparent, through the processes of mechanization, repetition, and the redundant proliferation of forms.
The forbidding quality of BP’s reductive choice of subject matter and materials and their unfailing deapan delivery combine to drive home the key point – – that the patent ubiquity of fossil fuels and the ambiguous anonymity of monochrome paintings could have more in common than we may have imagined. Oil, and the common paraphernalia of the oil and automobile industry, as well as the human fascination with the speed and power, are critical components to the hyper-driven cultural engine of late modernism. They are deeply implicated in the rampant colonization of artistic forms and process that characterizes post-rnodernism. BP unravels these interconnected networks of power that to reduce individual creative thoughts or actions to a formal, opaque, and anonymous gesture of solid, impenetrable. BP’s serious twist is that their monochromes are neither solid nor impenetrable. Often encased in industrial, dull-sheened metal frames or armatures, they are thick, viscous fluids, circulating constently or intermittently like a slow-moving, morbid fountain.
BP have accepted the discipline of a singular point of departure for their work because it is an accepted source of cultural analysis. Although it is unusual for artists to stream their work in such a deliberate manner, several contemporary artists do employ similar obsessive, analytic strategies. Most celebrated perhaps is Cindy Sherman’s radical project of picturing herself as ‘other selves, ‘ constantly reiterating the diversity of feminine identity as well as the constructed nature of the human codes of self- identification or Nam Jun Paik’s dominating installations of expanded fields of television screens, with color-saturated video loops that repeat or replay common images and sounds as incessant visual rhythms. There is also Christian Marclay’s insistent use of the elements of music and the recording industry as source material and actual material for making sculpture and installations have a compelling intensity that combines a musical sensibility with the delicate, trinket like -artifacts of the popular music industry. BP’s work has a more insidious flavor, where heavy industry and a powerful sense of modes of production are aligned with their artistic ventures. To an extent, their work shares something of the industrial involvement of Richard Serra’s massive sculpture and raw finishes, however BP’s work is more political than conceptual – – more socially motivated than process oriented. Their work is a critical articulation of industry and consumption, rather than a reverential exploitation of industry’s powerful processes and means.
Some of BP’s recent work developed for the current exhibition, incorporates images culled from automobile customization or decoration. Of course, their imagery does not come from abstracted formal stylization of the auto design studios in Detroit or Milan, it comes from the self-glamorizing, back-lot custom industry, where danger and power are placed in the foreground, as overheated images desire are embellished with comic-book features of exaggeration and alluring prowess. The « oil paintings » use timing devices and pumps to create an extremely languid pulse, of ‘now you see it now you don’t’. In these works the image is hidden and revealed in an alternating fashion as oil flows across the face of the image, obliterating it, and then ebbs down to slowly reveal it’s hidden icon.
In reprise of a previous work, Simulator, BP has created a virtual ride – to nowhere, except the art museum. A monochrome oil painting is placed at the heart of an industrial simulation machine, a machine with a chair, but no controls and no guidance systems. The viewer is offered no chance of ‘taking control’ simply participates in the ride of seeing, a black painting. The manipulative power of this kind of gently forced viewing, is both seductive and insidious, as the ‘ride’ seems harmless enough perhaps attractively elegant – but it is a game that controls all the possibilities and limits the viewer to only one kind of inalterable experience. It is a complex metaphor, that involves intricate circuits of political and psychological power, control, and simulation. But the work, like BP’s other work is deceptively simple and accessible, with no apparent moving parts, they are all hidden beneath the industrial casing of the ride.
Gary Sangster The Contemporary Museum Baltimore August, 1997
In Catalogue “ BP, reflexions sur l’image”, Galerie Claude Douyon, Miami, 1997