Portlandia Takes Aim at the Contemporary Art World

Portlandia has been making fun of contemporary art since before it was cool

Artist Alex Prager's promo shots of Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen and supporting cast for the new season of Portlandia


Artist Alex Prager's promo shots of Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen and supporting cast for the new season of Portlandia

Artist Alex Prager’s promo shots of Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen and supporting cast for the new season of Portlandia. Courtesy of Alex Prager

Fans of IFC’s Portlandia series can expect more hilarious takes on the pretensions of the contemporary art world in the much-anticipated fourth season which debuts tonight. Having skewered performance art, “bad art in coffee shops” and art that instantaneously happens when you “Put a Bird On It!” in previous seasons, a clip currently available online depicts Fred Armisen as a professor at Portland Community College teaching an “Anti-Corporate Art” course with a specific directive to his students to make a “statement” about a “target”—in this case Ronald McDonald.

“Ronald McDonald plus something violent and crazy, like money, equals shock. . . . You want someone to stop in their tracks,” he instructs the group of about half a dozen art students poised in front of their easels. He even includes dramatic demonstrations of the astounded viewer reaction they should be aiming for. Further educational assistance comes in the form of a live model fully costumed as Ronald McDonald who Armisen directs to pose with props in various menacing stances (think guns and a gas mask). One student’s painting in particular, depicting the corporate mascot with a sinister smile and sporting dollar signs for eyes, while holding a gun and a bag of money, prompts an intense reaction from the professor, presumably an indication of its originality and success. Never mind that the next shot of the Ronald McDonald model shows him wearing giant dollar-sign sunglasses while also holding a gun and a bag of money.

Armisen and his co-star and co-writer Carrie Brownstein frequently demonstrate their familiarity and understanding of the nuances of the contemporary art world—the hilarious labels in the performance art sketch “creatively” describe the act of Brownstein getting mugged on the street as it’s happening—while also poking fun at its many excesses. In the “Bad Art, Good Walls,” skit, their eponymous company’s mission is to assemble collections of terrible art for coffee shops; the more kitschy and clichéd the image, the better. When a new coffee shop in town orders up a custom-built collection of bad art, Brownstein says they should check in with their co-worker (guest star Sean Hayes) for options because “he just got back from an art fair.”

But there is little doubt about their eye for and appreciation of serious talent, especially judging from the current season’s promo shots. Brownstein and Armisen commissioned L.A. photographer Alex Prager to shoot them; the artist staged the Portlandia co-stars and supporting cast members in the same style of her much-lauded “A Face in the Crowd,” images. Prager’s well-received show at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York recently ended its run while her exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., her first solo museum show, runs through March 9.

Both Brownstein and Armisen are multi-talented multi-taskers: She was formerly a guitarist and vocalist for the band Sleater-Kinney, and, as an avid fan of Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, penned a short story, “Light My Fire,” for a 2003 exhibition of his work, inspired by his sculpture of the same name. Armisen, who attended the School of Visual Arts in the ’80s before dropping out to become part of Chicago-based band Trenchmouth, also collects art and is a self-professed fan of Shepard Fairey, Joe Coleman, and Mike Davis. He stars as the hero known as “Ambience Man” in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s (sorry, but decidedly less funny than Portlandia) YouTube series. He was also recently named as the bandleader for former Saturday Night Live co-star Seth Meyers’s new late-night talk show.

Christie’s recently published an interview between Armisen and the house’s senior editor Austin Considine about the utopian “Dream of the 90s” (the name of an earlier “Portlandia” skit) for a sale focused on art from that period. Armisen expressed his appreciation for photographer Cindy Sherman, noting: “I’d like to do an impression of Cindy Sherman. Part of my goal when I first started going into comedy was I definitely aspired to be somebody like Cindy Sherman.”

Asked what his impression of the artist would look like, Armisen responded, presumably in his signature deadpan fashion: “I would do a very, very colorful photo, where it just looks like a third person—where it looks like neither her nor me. And I’d say, ‘Hey, this is me doing Cindy Sherman.’”





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