The artist who calls himself Bask uses his latest gig, 1300 gallery's If You Can't Join 'Em, Beat 'Em, to recruit rabble-rousers for his Orwellian club. Walk into his one-man show, and a wall-sized installation bangs you over the head with agitprop: "Bask in Your Thought Crime," it commands. Combining framed images and wall graffiti, the piece repeats the stenciled message at least a half-dozen times, like a brainwashing tape. For the uninitiated, wall text provides instruction: "A thoughtcrime is an idea or belief that defies the norms of the status quo."
Oh dear. Do collages of Green Party meeting minutes and silk-screened photos of Mao await?
Alas, this first whiff of Bask is deceptive. What's actually ahead is a witty batch of street-style art in which Bask analyzes himself, his family and friends, and American culture. Most of the show's three dozen framed pieces look like the offspring of hip advertisements that have mated with cans of spray paint and detritus from inner-city dumpsters.
Born in the Czech Republic, Bask and his family immigrated to Florida in the mid-'80s. His enormous assemblage "Blue Collar" is at once a memento of his family's journey and a monument to working stiffs (including his cabinetmaker father). On a tan and bluish-gray background of blueprints, training manuals, and old Popular Mechanics pages, Bask layers a handmade 7-11 sign, an American flag, and a tattered suitcase. In places, he respectfully questions the American Dream that lured his parents: "Work work work" is scribbled in one area; in another are the words "Place dream here," only with "dream" crossed out and "memory" added underneath. At the composition's center loom the dates of his immigration -- "1984/December 1985" -- which connect with Orwell's 1984. "Blue Collar" is a compelling essay about an emigré's ambivalence toward America and is among the show's strongest pieces. The conflicting dates, though, are suspicious: Perhaps Bask is busy creating his "origin myth" (a common practice among aspiring artists) by embellishing the facts of his life.
As a kid, he copied Spider-Man comics and Mad magazine illustrations; during high school, he practiced graffiti art on the buildings and trains of Tampa and St. Petersburg. At 16, he began to sign his work "Bask," which sounds like a derivative of "Basquiat" (as in Jean-Michel, the superstar graffitist of the 1980s). But the artist claims it means "Bask in this, everyone; it's art." Soon after high school, the self-taught Bask moved from the streets into the studio.
Bask's painting "Tag" introduces us to the visual vocabulary of his old nightscrawler culture, showing us his many "tags." An artist's tag -- the word, name, or symbol that identifies him -- can be plastered on buildings in myriad ways: in freehand with spray paint or a shoe polish bottle, or even more quickly with a premade stencil or sticker. Like a dog marking its territory, the graffitist's goal is to spray his tag over his competitor's images.
Bask's overall work has been "tagged" pop art, graffiti art, and neoexpressionism, but like many postmodern artists, his eclectic style doesn't neatly fit a category or "ism." Instead, Bask is a boundary-hopper. He commingles the splatters and drips of abstract expressionists, the washes of Color-Field painters, the pop-culture collage of Robert Rauschenberg, and the scribbles of Cy Twombly. Added to the mix are the stencils and tags of graffiti, the crisp graphic design of commercial art, the superflat imagery and bright colors of comic strips, and the telegraphic messages of a copywriter. Bask calls his art "urban-influenced" (though he grew up in the 'burbs) and says his art is a "deconstruction" of "popular icons." If you wanna sound cool, call him an urban-influenced pop deconstructionist.
Bask has a social conscience, too, and he gives serious issues like racism, sexism, and hunger a witty spin that sometimes veers toward cliché: In "Meat Market," he stenciled "Now Hiring for all positions," "Great exploitation possibilities," and "Your daily dose of Misogyny" over a background created with images from porn magazines. An appropriated ad reads, "Introducing a new brand of beef"; amid the ruckus stands a little cartoon girl, waving goodbye to her innocence. "Taunting the Hungry," created on the door of a 1950s-era refrigerator, juxtaposes the word "diet" with images of a super-sized McDonald's meal, cake, the chubby Campbell's soup girl, and a cartoon character holding a sign reading "will work for food."
Another strong image is one of the show's simplest: "Leonard Peltier" is a silk-screened image of the Choctaw Sioux who's serving consecutive life sentences for murdering two FBI agents in 1975. Below his portrait, on an ochre background, Peltier is identified as "United States Prisoner 89637-132." A swash of white paint -- a Native American symbol of life -- cements wads of grass to the canvas. Here, text, image, and found object create a tightly unified, powerful image.
At their best, Bask's works function like exceptional ads, in which text and image deliver a clear message, or as pieces of pop-art eye candy. At their worst, as in "Anthrax" (an assemblage of gas masks with the logos of the post office and the band Anthrax), the work is tiresome and uninspiring.
Young Bask has incredible talent. He can actually draw, unlike his graffitist predecessors Basquiat and Keith Haring, and he has a gift for color and design. But his art could be even better, and more focused, if he'd go to artist's boot camp (school), where he could learn from experienced mentors. Instead of using street signs, ads, and logos to formulate his message, he could create his own vocabulary, just like Orwell.