A Cascading Cacophony of Cans

The Paintings of Cy Wagner at Liberal Arts Roxbury

Up in the beautiful Catskill Mountains, in our little town of Roxbury, New York, there are not one, but two art galleries, one just within sight of the other. Liberal Arts Roxbury, run by Kevin Moore, had an opening last night. They’re currently showing a collection of large scale paintings by an artist named Cy Wagner (1926-2016). The paintings are of crushed soda cans. Some of the crushed cans portrayed are “Orange Crush” brand cans, which obviously makes me giggle.

As with any good art show, I left with my eye slightly readjusted to the landscape and started picking up the beautiful and tragic detritus that follows us humans around, even in a place of pristine beauty like the Catskills. Just around the corner from the gallery was a smashed beer can, pounded flat by traffic.

As a commercial artist largely in the field of packaging design, these portraits of crushed cans were particularly poignant for me. There is beauty in the aesthetic of these self contained advertisements that are also containers. There’s also tragedy in their short, brightly attractive lifespan: from the desk of a designer, to the printer, to the factory, to the shelf, from purchase to consumption, and finally to an afterlife of eternal rest in a landfill – or, ideally, new life as recycled material, though that happens less than we hope.

I noted with interest the retro packaging of my youth in these paintings. The labels were created before the era of computer design. Much of the logo type and accompanying illustration of fruits would have been painstakingly rendered by hand as different color plates, and then assembled on a printing machine with multiple ink stations. Designers used to called this style of printing “potato stamp” printing, because there was no room for subtleties of gradation or color blending, just thick hard-edged layers of ink pushed down one after another. Palattes were limited as each color station was costly.

The resulting clean, crisp artwork, reproduced on a massive scale, were molded into vessels and then filled with refreshing beverages. They were part of the visual landscape of my youth. For some reason I had a fascination with Coca-Cola products, and had a collection of all of the contemporary iterations of Coke. The scandal that was “New Coke” broke out during the time I was collecting these cans, and I was excited to be there to document it in my own weird way.

My collection used to stare down at me from the shelf in my room, bright bold colors printed on polished aluminum. The attraction to these objects was odd but obvious. These were both vessel and invitation to some sort of short lived, sugar fueled euphoria. Like all great design they promised a moment of transformation from the mundane. Occasionally an errant nerf ball would send the whole wall crashing down in a cascading cacophony that I can still hear clearly in my head today.

Wagner’s widow, Barbara Lancaster, who tipped Kevin off to the treasure trove of wonderful paintings stored in her barn, told me that Cy had enjoyed driving over the empty cans, seeking the “perfect crush.”

I can hear that sound perfectly too.

The triple meaning of the word “crush” in this context is not lost on me. Liking someone (or something) with an intense desire is known as a “crush” in English, and that was surely essential to the branding of that orange colored drink that tastes exactly like the color orange should, and not at all like the fruit of the same name.

Like a lot of the great pop artists at the time, the act of repainting not only the artwork of the can, but of the collapsed architecture of its body, elevates the discarded object to a pedestal of renewed scrutiny. That he hand-painted designs that had been originally painted by hand well before the production line began, neatly completes a circle that I’m still personally involved with, decades later. Would I be honored or shamed if the gaze of a contemporary Cy Wagner fell on my own discarded work? Like most of my responses these days to my own rhetorical questions, the answer is probably, ‘both.’

Cy Wagner’s celebration of this transition stage between utility and obscurity should remind us all of our brief and transitory relationship with packaging, the artists who create it, and its destination once emptied of its purpose.

As I wrote about in a previous post, a factory is being proposed nearby us in this pristine mountain landscape. Those behind it claim to have found some sort of solution to our endless cycle of use and refuse, but would in fact just be creating combustible material from garbage that might otherwise have been composted and used as fertile soil.

Wagner’s paintings, most completed 30 years ago or more, remind us that our relationship with refuse is more than transitory. There is no quick fix for the problem of our waste, we still own it even if we’ve forgotten that we do. It’s worth putting on a pedestal and contemplating it again.

Cy Wagner: Crushed Cans, at Liberal Arts Roxbury, runs from September 4th to October 10th 2021.