On the sixth floor of The Andy Warhol Museum, like the sugary filling sandwiched between two vanilla floors of calculated counterculture, is SuperTrash. It's a bare-breasted, guns-blazing, blood-splattered panorama of grizzly pain and grizzlier pleasure, strewn across the boisterous posters of pulp films of the past century.
With subcultural niche exhibits, it's easy to expect a little filler, something to bide the time on one of the floors not currently devoted to media lightning-rod Shepard Fairey. But SuperTrash, despite its compact format, salvaged much of my otherwise unfulfilled hopes for something visceral and legitimately risqué at the museum.
Lovingly curated by the Warhol's Greg Pierce and trash scholar and collector Jacques Boyreau, the show is, from the first, visually appealing and funny. Trash being a multi-faceted medium, this humor manifests in different ways.
Some of the films referenced are harmlessly hokey, like Atom Age Vampire. Some, like The Black Gestapo, are charged with hot-button issues, but so garishly that to take them even remotely seriously would seem prudish and silly. Recognizables like director Sam Peckinpah and horror schlock-master Vincent Price recur, but I was surprised to see how many of the most uninhibited titles and poster graphics sported names like Steve McQueen and Jack Nicholson in starring roles. It's an indication that pulp horror and suspense are rarely relegated to the fringes, but have for decades permeated everything from Hollywood to European auteur cinema.
It's also nice to see Andy himself represented. The poster for 1977's Il Male (English title: Andy Warhol's Bad) is an exemplary feat of illustrative trash. It features a shapely woman draped in pearls and fur, holding a bloody knife in one hand and a fistful of money in the other. Her face is replaced by a black cat's, and a gruesome human visage is incorporated into the length of her naked torso, its drooping, languid eyes standing in for breasts. Oh, and the pelvis-mouth is eating some of the money.
It's a visual that typifies a major tactic of this brand of poster art: unlimited embellishment, the idea that the explosions can't be too destructive, the skin too bare or the hack symbolism too plentiful. The deftly rendered pandemonium of Dark of the Sun, with its unlikely, muscled, chainsaw-wielding warriors leaping and bulging through a world of fiery decimation, attests to this principle. So does the bright block lettering of the word "Beautiful!" above the still image of a masked corpse sizzling in the elaborate electric chair of The Traveling Executioner.
Some of the graphic work does manage to be a bit more understated. The tight, two-tone presentation of The Mackintosh Man and the gritty, stippled chiaroscuro of Dirty Little Billy suggest, to varying degrees, an appreciation for restraint. The oversize poster for Le Masque de la Mort Rouge straddles the two modes, with miniature scenes of violence and sexual indulgence worked into a red-on-white rendering of Vincent Price's unmistakable likeness. It's big and harsh and consuming, but balanced and approachable.
In that, the poster might be an appropriate mascot for the entire exhibition. For all its gross spectacle and lurid insinuations about human nature, SuperTrash is a whimsical, uptempo cruise through a gaggle of self-conscious, self-indulgent takes on our dark psyche. Co-curator Boyreau calls the layout of the space a "subtle anarchy." Indeed, though plenty of background literature is available, explanation in the form of wall-text is minimal. The viewer rides the current of over-stimulation without a life-jacket, which is really the only way to give the show its due. Art may benefit from exposition, but trash has the courtesy to speak, quite audibly, for itself.
SuperTrash continues through Jan. 31. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org