A self-described interdisciplinarian, Robby Herbst knows how to bring people together around productive labor. In addition to being an artist and educator, Herbst, who lives in Los Angeles, is a founder of the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest and the organizer behind the L.A.-based creative group the Llano Del Rio Collective. His recent show was part social commentary, part homage to his deceased Hungarian-born grandfather-a one-time socialist and amateur gymnast.
Inspired by his grandfather's pastime, as well as by a 1911 pyramid diagram produced by the international union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Herbst's show "New Pyramids for the Capitalist System" featured works on paper (most in watercolor and gouache) based on photographs of class-conscious human pyramid performances organized by the artist and carried out by a variety of participants at Occupy sites around L.A. These works were exhibited alongside a small photographic memorial to the Herbst clan's revered paterfamilias.
Sources of inspiration aside, this is not your grandfather's socialism. Whereas the IWW's original "Pyramid of the Capitalist System" was a propagandistic depiction of rulers, priests, law enforcers and capitalists stacked hierarchically and held aloft by the masses, Herbst's "New Pyramids" present a more ambiguous take on social stratification. Contraceptiongate has affirmed that religious leaders still reside near the top of the social pyramid, and a number of Herbst's works depict the ruling class propped on the backs of priests. This time around, however, a woman stands smug on high like Ms. Monopoly.
Meanwhile, the workers, who counter oligarchy in the IWW diagram with the slogan "WE WORK FOR ALL, WE FEED ALL," appear to be more accepting of their lot in Herbst's images. A medium-size drawing in which members of different social strata gaze at the viewer with gruff defiance is reminiscent less of anticapitalist propaganda than of the "we're-all-in-this-together" rallying cry of Clint Eastwood's Super Bowl ad. Herbst's transposition of the class pyramid onto group gymnastics would seem to suggest a de-hierarchizing collectivism. Only after observing a drawing showing a woman smiling with gratitude as she's bent under the heels of a performer dressed as a cop do we register that the series comments on the servitude of the American worker.
The adjoining memorial comprised faded black-and-white photographs of Herbst's grandfather performing with the Young Worker's Athletic Club, one of many socialist organizations forced to disband under McCarthyism. Perusing these images, one sensed how the absence of such politically oriented social outlets has contributed to keeping today's underclass resigned to the dictates of the current order. Herbst's diverse activities are unified in addressing this absence; however, as the ambiguous power relations depicted in his works suggest, shaking up today's complex social hierarchy is no easy task.
One small watercolor-and-gouache presents a transitional moment in a human pyramid performance. Buttressed by helping hands, but noticeably off-kilter, the figure at the top might as easily be falling as rising. The work is a suitable allegory for our political moment.
Photo: Robby Herbst: Untitled (New Pyramids For the Capitalist System 5), 2012, watercolor and gouache on paper, 30 by 22 inches; at the Dumbo Arts Center.