By Simon Constable
New York-based artist David Kramer says he’s always felt like an outsider. “That’s partly to do with being dyslexic, and not doing well at school,” he says. It didn’t stop him though. He’s exhibited at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and you’ll find his work in private collections around the world. While Andy Warhol’s Elvis and Marilyn held a mirror up to America’s obsession with celebrity, Kramer’s looks at the disconnect between the advertising industry’s promises of the fabulous-life versus the reality.
“As a kid I grew up looking at those ads in Life Magazine and Esquire,” he says. “They were seared into my consciousness.” To him, the printed images of urban sophisticates portrayed what life was supposed to be like when he would eventually escape from the suburbs. But even before he moved, things changed. In the1970s, if you could afford a shiny new sports car, you’d be lucky to get gasoline after rationing was introduced. When Kramer did escape, in the Reagan-era, New York City was blighted by crime, drugs, and AIDS. “All those things that were supposed to be available were suddenly unavailable – I don’t know if they truly existed, but they seemed to because I saw them in a magazine,” he says. Just like the rest of America, he’d been sold a dream which promptly vanished by the time he arrived.
Part of the unbridled optimism spawned by the ad industry is simply the business of aiding the sales process. You manufacture cosmetics; you sell hope. But it’s not the whole story. The other part of it was that the U.S. economy ruled in the 1950s and 1960s as Europe rebuilt after WWII’s devastation. Anything was possible, including roundtrip journeys to the moon. Projections were made for manned moon bases and excursions to Mars by the year 2000, goals we’re still waiting on.
As the heyday of the ad men ended, so the dream died. The old magazine ads look hopelessly dated. “I saw the dream, and the illusion, being created,” says Greg Stone, a Brooklyn-based artist whose mother and father worked for ad legends Jerry Della Femina and Doyle, Bane, Bernbach (DDB,) respectively. “One of the ironies is that the ad men, who were never called Mad Men, had the same optimism and believed their own hubris, making it even more potent.”
Lately, the gap between the ad industry’s pitch and the reality has become a chasm, and the population has taken notice. Voter rage is being channeled by outsider presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. That makes Kramer’s work germane right now, with its deliciously enticing scenes of the “beautiful people” we wanted to become, augmented with captions deeply at odds with the images. Funny, yes, but also unsettling.
“When I first walked into David’s studio it all came back to me, in a brilliant and horrific flash,” says Stone. “It was like a slap in the face, to wake up or continue dreaming.”