Iconography and Power: The Intersection of Reason and Belief

At its core, Kyle Kogut’s current exhibition in the Stamp Gallery, False Monarchy, deals with the intersection of ritual and commodity in American culture. The gallery has been transformed into a gothic playground of black car dealership flags, 90s style big box set televisions, and large scale drawings of auto industry icons, all of which frame the altar, a “tar” covered tree littered with offerings that would feel at home in the back of an old Chevy pickup.

Each piece in the show, from the TVs spewing a constant stream of drone metal music, to the intricately painted car-logos-turned-ritual-objects, has an intimate connection with hyper-consumerist culture and the occult. By taking images that are so widely associated with the automotive and technological industries (the Lincoln symbol, the Dodge Ram logo on the shirt hanging from the tree, the television sets, etc.) and renaming them as ritualistic or religious iconography, Kogut is making commentary on our obsession with these mass-produced objects, and the almost religious relationship that we as a society have with the industries that create them. Through the use of symbolism, the artist reasserts the importance of icons not just in religious settings, but in daily life as well. When visitors enter the gallery, the first thing they usually notice are the old TVs set up in the center of the room. These are familiar objects — many people grew up around them when they were considered to be the height of technology in the realm of media consumption. However, due to the fact that they are producing an ominous, continuous sound that permeates the gallery space, they create an unsettling atmosphere rather than one that is comfortable and recognizable. This subversion of familiar imagery with connections to occult practices leaves visitors feeling uneasy and questioning their connections with these symbols.

On a larger scale, Kogut connects these main themes of industry power, iconography, and our obsession with mass production to the current political climate in the US. The hyper-capitalism that is so pervasive in American society is proliferated by the close relationship between our head of state and the industries that control the majority of wealth in our country. Industrialization and the creation of “big business” has always been connected to economic growth and technological advancement, however, with an ever-widening gap between the working, middle, and upper classes, many are beginning to question our dependence on large industries as the “saving grace” for the economic hardship of the average person. This concept is eerily familiar in the wake of Donald Trump being elected president on the backs of working class individuals who saw him as an icon of wealth, power, and hope. Many of the lies that so frequently permeated his campaign revolved around his connection to large industries (such as the automotive industry, among others) as a way to lift the working class out of economic despair. However, as many quickly found out after he was elected into office, many of these remarks only served to reassert the power of the upper class and those in control of these industries. The connection between industry, the working class, and the deceiving nature of certain icons is succinctly reflected in the quote that greets visitors as they first enter the gallery. Taken directly from the Satanic Bible itself, it reads

“Whenever, therefore, a lie has built unto itself a throne, let it be assailed without pity and without regret, for, under the domination of an inconvenient falsehood, no one can prosper.”

            -Antonin Szandor LaVey, The Satanic Bible

The concept of a “lie [building] unto itself a throne” reflects the current administration and its foundation of deceiving the American people by posing as a false icon of hope. While the connection to the current political climate is not as blatant as other aspects of the show, it is reasserted through the subversion of familiar imagery found throughout the exhibition, and confirms the importance of iconography in the way that people perceive an idea (whether it be religious or political). Overall, False Monarchy does a wonderful job of making people second guess our dependence on mass produced imagery as a way to communicate ideas, and shows how harmful mass consumerism and industry dependence can be when allowed to go unchecked.


Come visit False Monarchy in The Stamp Gallery, running now through March 17th.

For more information on this show and upcoming events, visit http://thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery

Written by Erin Allen


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