Youth Under Pressure: Robert Longo, Deathrock and the Eighties

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Pressure by Robert LongoIn the excerpt from Neal Benezra’s article about 1980s art in the previous post, he writes, Robert Longo’s Pressure might well be the most representative work of art of the 1980s.” I would go further and state that it is the definitive work of the 1980s—the penultimate visual anthem of the era—and most especially the period between 1979—1987, during which the musical genres of gothic rock and deathrock flourished and achieved their greatest artistic successes through the work of a variety of diverse bands including Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Sisters of Mercy, and most appropriately to the subject of this article, Christian Death.

Christian Death, as founded and led by Rozz Williams, was the closest in spirit to the English rock band Joy Division in regards to the relentless and brooding expression of angst and alienation, and the recognition of the absurdity of novelty, though through a distinctly abrasive Los Angeles sound. In contrast with the indulgent excesses of many other bands of the goth subculture of that era and later, Christian Death and Joy Division were both subversive in their nature, sharing a frustrated contempt for the status quo. In this, they held true to their punk rock roots.

The Los Angeles punk rock scene in the early eighties was the very epitome of teenage melancholy and restlessness, embodied most notably in the music of Black Flag, The Germs, Circle Jerks, Fear, Final Conflict, and Suicidal Tendencies. The American Dream by that point came across like a hypocritical nightmare to be avoided at all costs, and the resurgence of patriotic zeal amidst the backdrop of a booming arms race and the threat of global nuclear holocaust only added to what must have seemed like a mockery of everything sane and reasonable. In Los Angeles these feelings were amplified more extremely than anywhere else in the United States given the acute vacuity of the local mainstream and the illusory glamor of Hollywood. That deathrock was born in Los Angeles was natural, even inevitable. The punks were already outsiders enough, but even then there were those who were even more alienated. And Rozz Williams, almost perpetually masqueraded in deathrock whiteface, was the quintessential 1980s outsider in Los Angeles.

Pressure correlates with Williams more than any other work of art I’ve ever encountered. It is one of those incredible moments of synchronicity that Robert Longo began working on Pressure in the same year that Christian Death released their debut album, Only Theatre of Pain. What never ceases to amaze me is how interconnected everything in our world is, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of art. Without a doubt, Only Theatre of Pain is the first American statement of what is construed “goth,” as much as Williams himself detested being labeled and pigeonholed as such. More accurately, the album is as perfect a statement of teenage rebellion and melancholia as could ever be achieved. The album’s most well known track, Romeo’s Distress, is an anthem of Hollywood deathrock, pure horrorshow in its seething portrait of a hopelessly alienated youth trapped in a degenerated suburban hell from which there is seemingly no escape. The subject of Pressure is likewise being crushed under the massive weight of a monolithic edifice, attempting to destroy his sense of individual identity and freedom, expressed through his wearing of clown whiteface as a mockery against the expectations of the status quo.

The edifice of Pressure symbolizes contemporary society at its worst, forcing the youth to accept being processed into the very machine they are to be in a lifetime of servitude to. There is perhaps nothing more horrifying to an adolescent than the very thought of having to face a future of ceaseless wage slavery, to which the vast majority of the populace are condemned to. It is this painfully obvious and apparent pressure which fuels the discontent of youth, forces the few to open their eyes and awaken to what is real and accept that the only way out is to not conform, to embrace alienation and become that outsider that the institutional bureaucracies work so hard to suppress and destroy.

This is not to suggest that such an embrace would be easy or immunize one against the threat that the status quo represents. The subject of the painting, having made clear his choice to resist, has put on the distinctly expressive whiteface (the style of which would be appropriated several years later by James O’Barr in The Crow) as a representation of how he feels inside. Brooding on the isolated position he now finds himself in, the overwhelming pressure of all that the status quo imposes and expects of him—from his parents to his teachers to business magnates and politicians, all who will make decisions for him beyond his control—represented by the edifice, is bearing down on him in an effort to compel him to conform and submit to their will. Viewed in person, the edifice is particularly disconcerting in its tyranny as it is fully three-dimensional and literally casts an imposing shadow over the painting, the effect of which is something akin to suffocation.

Not without irony, Pressure was completed the year before 1984, and while it is difficult for many to acknowledge today, the first half of the eighties was Orwellian in tone and social character. The radical individualism of the sixties and seventies slowly gave way to a conformist monoculture that has been shaping ever since then and which has only taken full form now, in our paranoid, dystopian post-9/11 society. It makes sense then, that for the last few years in the US and UK there has been a strong interest in the eighties, since it was during the Reagan/Thatcher era that the cancers and absurdities of our current society took root and made themselves known.

I have studied Pressure for many, many years, and it is without a doubt my favorite of all Longo’s phenomenal works. My appreciation for it has only increased with each set of viewings, and as with Only Theatre of Pain, there is always something new to be gleaned.

Pressure is the penultimate visual anthem of non-conformists everywhere, and it’s relevance, as with all great works of art, is timeless.

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on “Youth Under Pressure: Robert Longo, Deathrock and the Eighties
One Comment on “Youth Under Pressure: Robert Longo, Deathrock and the Eighties
  1. Pingback: LEXZINE | Neal Benezra on Robert Longo’s “Pressure”

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