Scrolling through a list of recently opened exhibitions, one name gave me pause: Cumwizard69420. A name that reads as if birthed—or shat—straight from the bowels of the Internet. Cumwizard69420. A name that seems as if typed by a snickering teen signing into a chatroom in 1997. In fact, that name would not be out of place in any era of web culture, from goofily perverse AIM usernames (I remember 69 and 420 being particularly popular numbers in middle school) to the Pepe the Frog-dominated Wild Wild West of 4Chan to the enduring edgelords on Reddit and Kiwi Farms. Cumwizard69420, though, is not a name I would associate with an artist presenting an IRL exhibition at a respected Chelsea gallery whose own name is chiseled in stone next to its frosted glass doors. But, here we are…
If Cumwizard69420’s name halted my scroll flow, the art featured alongside the promotional listing for his current exhibition The Americans at Cheim & Read made me do an even more extreme digital doubletake. The singular image depicted a painting of a scream that has become more notorious than Edvard Munch’s own. If Munch’s woeful wail acts as a symbol of the universal existential terror of being human, this updated scream represents the sudden sanity-shattering of Trump Derangement Syndrome. With her mouth dropped open in agony and her eyes clenched tight, a woman in a black beanie and highlighter green jacket, who I just learned through a Google search is named Jessica Starr, bellows a guttural, “NOOOOOOOOO!!!” in response to Trump’s inauguration. In that moment, Starr, against her will I assume, became fodder for countless memes about liberals posted frequently on Donald Trump Jr.’s Instagram.
What I found most shocking about Cumwizard’s portrayal of Starr was not the choice of subject. Certainly, this tear-strewn icon’s face is worth a portrait, as Marion and I share her howling video back and forth quite frequently. It is surprising, however, that this mockery of futile screeching into the abyss was placed within an art gallery at all. While I don’t think Cumwizard is making a strong partisan political statement here, more chuckling at the absurdity than thumbing his nose at the libtards, we are living at a time when most art pieces have to be litmus-tested for the ”right” politics. So much so that wall labels and press releases, with their increasingly niche declarations about an artist’s identities as if that in itself was proof of an artwork’s inherent goodness, read as satire more often than not. Every time I go to an exhibition, particularly biennials, triennials, internationals, and other survey exhibitions that have become the preferred platform for this type of curation, I pray this will end, while also dreading what the backlash against this pervasive neoliberal political art would look like. Incel installations? Monumental uber-serious White Bro jizz-like abstractions? But maybe, just maybe, Cumwizard’s presence in Cheim & Read shows us a way forward by embracing—Thank fucking Christ—humor.
Admittedly, I’m woefully late jumping on the Cumwizard bandwagon as many, many other, mostly pathologically online, people have already become fervent Cumwizard devotees, previously purchasing his prolifically posted artworks. I have a few excuses here. First, I’m fucking old and apparently, getting increasingly out of touch. A fact that has become glaringly obvious as I was introduced to Cumwizard’s art through *gasp* a relatively conservative (little c) commercial Chelsea gallery show. Apparently, I’m not the only one as ArtNews published a strangely bewildered article attempting to figure out this Cumwizard phenomenon. But that certainly doesn’t make me feel better as ArtNews is not company Filthy Dreams has ever wanted to keep. Fuck. I’m losing my edge. The other excuse is that I’m not a frequent Reddit user where Cumwizard’s scrawled aesthetic has become something of a local—if you can call one platform local—legend. When I do log on, I generally only lurk around the Lana Del Rey and The Tim Dillon Show subs rather than the subs for fellow podcasts Red Scare and now-defunct Cum Town, the latter of which is where Cumwizard69420 got his start and similarly splooge-drenched name.
I am familiar enough with Cum Town and its offshoots like The Adam Friedland Show to know that Cumwizard69420’s humor is directly related to their—and other standup comics of their ilk (it’s no mistake deep in Cumwizard’s art archive is a portrait of comic and Bi Guy Ian Fidance)—dry cynicism, nihilism, and, thankfully, fairly apolitical impulse (despite certain publications’ attempt to associate them with the “dirtbag left”…whatever that is) to make fun. And I use that phrase “make FUN” as a direct reference to my own favorite comedian Doug Stanhope’s closing bit from The Dying of a Last Breed: “Did I take some subjects that are ugly and dark and soul-lacerating, painful, shitty, and maybe unavoidable-in-life-kind-of-stuff and I made it FUN? What a dick I must be!” Like these comics, Cumwizard makes fun out of anything and everything no matter how horrible, how traumatic, how gauche, how offensive, and how untouchable.
Case in point: The Americans, which, not for nothing, is squirreled away in the very back of Cheim & Read. Wonder why?! Could it be that the concurrent exhibition of Diane Arbus’s grimly captivating and uncanny photography, though displaying an equally deranged vision of America’s freaks, is easier to swallow for an art-going audience than a naked morbidly obese woman crawling on the ground licking Crisco off of a butter knife? Maybe. Even sequestered in the back room, though, Cumwizard’s work certainly leaves an impression. In fact, more so than the Arbus exhibition, Untitled, which comes at an unfortunate time directly after the more expansive retrospective at David Zwirner this past fall. I don’t know about you, but that was enough Arbus for me for a while.
Give me, instead, a friendly grinning portrait of Jeffrey Epstein! What a lovely chap! With that wholesome bright expression as rendered by Cumwizard in A Study of Jeffrey Epstein, I’m sure he would never do anything bad! Epstein’s portrait is joined by, naturally, another painting of his gal pal and partner-in-crime Ghislaine Maxwell who stares straight at the viewer as she rubs a disembodied foot, which, as we know from the source photograph, belongs to Epstein himself on his notorious Lolita Express. Though these are the only paintings of the sex trafficker twosome included in The Americans, Epstein and Maxwell seem to be a constant source of inspiration for Cumwizard whose website features other paintings such as Jeffrey Epstein on Sesame Street and my personal favorite, Stephen Hawking Rolling Up The Ramp to Epstein’s Temple. While these are amusing posted on Instagram or Reddit, there’s an extra level of transgressiveness to honoring Epstein and Maxwell in paint within an art setting since a few art world big spenders like MoMA’s former chairman Leon Black were bosom buddies with the couple.
It’s not just Epstein and Maxwell. Cumwizard’s The Americans features a selection of portraits of canceled, problematic, or, at the very least, deeply unpopular celebrities. A watercolor presents Ye with a doofy grin plastered on his face, sporting his beloved MAGA hat. Woody Allen peers out of his portrait with a thousand-yard stare as if stunned, while Ellen looks as if she’s blown the blood vessels in her eyes screaming at an abused intern on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. The REAL governor of California—the only one I’ll acknowledge—Caitlyn Jenner pouts as if sneering at the homeless people around her airplane hangar. The only portrait of a famous figure that isn’t downright loathed by much of the Internet is of Miss J Alexander, best known as a judge alongside Tyra Banks on America’s Next Top Model, who is portrayed sporting a hilarious bowl cut, a hairstyle marvel that is only second to Cumwizard’s windblown depiction of comedian Katt Williams.
America, while built for the rich and famous, does not consist solely of the rich and famous. The Americans doesn’t either. The nameless unknowns—the normal people, if you will—in Cumwizard’s paintings mainly fall into two categories, divided by gender. Women, as seen in I Want to Be in the Middle or Face Down Ass Up, are extraordinarily fat, often nude, resembling, with their black Bettie Page haircuts, YouTube mukbanger legend Candy, better known as Hungry Fatchick (I only wish her sometime co-mukbanger Nikocado Avocado showed up in a Cumwizard painting! Please! For me!). With women appearing as thumbnails from feeder videos, the men in Cumwizard’s world are rendered less fetishistically, but are equally exaggerated. In works such as Come Help Grandpappy with His Pants and Man with Saggy Undies, old men struggle with their droopy drawers, their flat and flabby pancake asses exposed below ill-fitting tight white briefs. There are a few exceptions to Cumwizard’s binary depiction of the American public that are similarly bleak. Take, for instance, Mother and Child, a Mary Cassatt gone wrong with Mama as a blue-lipped fentanyl addict nodding out with a babe in her arms as a sketch of a cartoonish syringe lays nearby. Now, is this an unfair depiction of my fellow countrymen and women? Probably not.
But even asking that question is potentially taking Cumwizard’s art much too seriously. The point of his work seems to be shock value and humor—or really, the combination of the two. Can you look at the painting Whoa There Partna, Come on in and Take a Load Off, portraying a cowboy in a saloon with his hot pink dick and balls hanging out of his pants, without chuckling even a little bit? In their corresponding press release, Cheim & Read attempts to contextualize the work in terms of “the inflated egos and self-delusions raging through our celebrity-obsessed culture.” I don’t really buy that analysis. There’s no shortage of artists who both revel in and critique our pervasive fame fanaticism, from Isaac Peifer (who shows up in ArtNews’ coverage of Cumwizard’s opening) to Laura Collins to Sam McKinniss, who recently professed his love for Cumwizard on Twitter. Unlike these three, Cumwizard’s paintings aren’t fixated on the endless representation of celebrity, from tabloid photographs to Instagram selfies to movie production stills. Instead, Cumwizard’s art is shitposting on canvas, with the only goal being getting a rise out of the viewer, no matter what it takes. I think we should take Cumwizard at his word when he said repeatedly on the Contain Podcast that the motive behind his art was “just to be funny online really.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! In fact, Cumwizard’s dedication to humor is completely and utterly refreshing in the face of the endless glut of self-serious political art that we’ve all had to endure from 2016 (or perhaps 2015) and beyond. Which points to the one glaring misstep in The Americans: the inclusion of a Donald Trump portrait. Though the painting itself is quite amusing with Trump’s sunburnt golf course skin and squeezed-shut butthole eyes, I cannot stomach more representations of Trump in a gallery or museum. It’s 2023—let it go! His power has significantly diminished, rendering him, as New York Magazine’s resident political commentator genius Olivia Nuzzi observed, wandering around isolated at Mar-A-Lago like Norma Desmond. But, you wouldn’t know it by the past few years of art exhibitions that continue to launch critiques of the 45th president as if they slept through Biden’s election. Beyond Barbara Kruger’s preaching to the choir, which I railed about previously, Jenny Holzer’s Demented Words at Hauser & Wirth showcased a kind of linguistic Trump monomania as she preserved his tweets onto tablets. And currently, in the Félix González-Torres exhibition at David Zwirner, Glenn Ligon wedged in an updated “Donald J. Trump 2016” on one of González-Torres’s word portraits, Untitled (Portrait of the Magoons). Staring up and squinting at that date emblazoned high on Zwirner’s wall made me want to scream in the meditative silence and striking austerity of González-Torres’s exhibition. Enough! ENOUGH!!!
It is curious—but not surprising—that Cheim & Read chose this Trump painting over Cumwizard’s copious other works equally satirizing Democrats, from Biden sniffing babies to Obama fucking himself in front of two penguins on an ice floe. Including some of these alongside Donald Trump would have been truly subversive, particularly at a time when everyone seems wholly skeptical of those able to mock both sides as equally baffling. But, hey, we can’t expect too much. It’s worth noting too, after culling through all of Cumwizard’s online archives, that as grotesque as some of the work in The Americans seems, it pales in comparison to much of his work. Cumwizard inches precariously towards the third rail of indefensible offensiveness and sometimes even touches it, as seen with his 9/11 series including Jonathan Van Ness Falling From Twin Towers, which looks exactly as it sounds. Not that I blame the gallery for not going THERE!
Granted, some may scratch their heads and wonder if decidedly un-PC humor and online infamy are enough to warrant a gallery show in Chelsea. Nevermind the quality of Cumwizard’s actual artwork, which is unexpectedly textural despite their flattened images online. Of course, it goes without saying that The Americans is a clear example of Cheim & Read attempting to stay cool with the kids and one step in front of their blue-chip gallery cohort. But, so what? Beyond his bawdy name and delightfully sicko humor, Cumwizard’s presence in itself is unusual and notable for an art world filled with Yale and other Ivy League MFAs trying to pass themselves off as radical anticapitalist activist revolutionaries speaking truth to power. A former Uber Eats driver who quit to pursue his art and inspire others to “not take everything seriously pretty much,” Cumwizard only took one art course before dropping out of college. With The Americans, Cumwizard and Cheim & Read did something many pretend to achieve in their novel-length wall labels, but few do: bringing an outsider into the fold—or at least into the back room.