At Luxembourg & Dayan, Mark Flood Spins Frustrated Poetry Out of America's Psychic Underground

Mark Flood, "FUCK THE ECONOMY," 1989
(Photo by Kyle Chayka)

Paintings emblazoned with the commands “Eat Human Flesh,” “Kill Yourself,” and “Masturbate Often” aren't the first things one would expect to find on the walls of an immaculately renovated Upper East Side townhouse, but then again this is the same space that recently showed Jeff Koons's "Made in Heaven" series. The vulgarity is half the fun of the Houston, Texas-based artist Mark Flood’s exhibition “The Hateful Years” at Luxembourg & Dayan, a treasure box of contemporary art programming on East 77th Street. Flood’s morbid instructions, daubed messily onto flat planes of color sometimes interrupted by portraits ripped from newspapers and magazines, pay testament to a career marked more by underdog persistence and gritty, punk shit-talking than glitzy success.

Flood’s work hits the abject vein, making use of the same cosmology of fallen teen idols, creepy advertising, and suburban weirdness that drove artists like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy to delve into the unsavory parts of the American psyche. The 55-year-old Flood is an artist's artist, a local legend for the large part of his career who has now become a formative influence on a new generation of young artists embracing the gnarly side of Pop. On display in the gallery are strange scribbled schematics labeled with Houston-centric brand names like Texaco and Exxon, painted-over thrift store canvases, and collages that transform celebrity heartthrobs into distorted monsters whose flesh multiplies grotesquely. The collages and the thrift store paintings are the most successful works in the show, taking Flood’s crusty reticence and expressing it in image form rather than through simplistic high school notebook-style slogans.

The artist is at heart an image-maker, creating an endless archive of quickly executed pieces that form one-shot riffs on cultural detritus. They’re easily consumable one by one, but work best in messy context with each other, their relative paucity of content balanced out by volume. This may not be the case with Flood’s pornography collages in which genitals grow facial features and vice versa. They’re presented in an overwhelming grid covering an entire wall — seeing just a few is plenty.

On the bottom floor are Flood’s lace paintings, which mingle monochrome paint backgrounds with yards of thrift-store lace covered in acid-hued splatters. At turns beautiful and violent, attractive and unsettling, the series has proven to be the hit of the artist’s career, allowing him to quit his long-time day job at the Menil Collection (for more on that, see Flood's interview with Randy Kennedy in the Times). He wasn’t trying to “sell out,” he said in a rare personal appearance at the Luxembourg & Dayan preview; he just thought he would try seeking out visual beauty for a change. The canvases lack the gritty, unsubtle intensity of his earlier work, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Mark Flood: The Hateful Years runs at Luxembourg & Dayan through September 12. Click on the slide show to see works from the exhibition.