Cady Noland exposes the myth behind the promise of the American Dream. Her work addresses what she sees as America’s anxiety over the country’s failed pledge of freedom, security, and success for all. Combining iconic objects and images (flags, beer cans, celebrity photos, and the contents of tabloid newspapers) with base elements (grocery baskets, handcuffs, walkers, and portable metal barricades), Noland’s output tends toward haphazard arrangements that signify impaired social and physical mobility. As in her massive 1989 installation of Budweiser beer cans, Noland’s work also suggests a culture of excess and waste, a place in which the media and corporate interests distort events and objectify people. Her installations, which resemble works in progress rather than formal or finished pieces, speak of an abandoned plan—of hopes discarded like so many of the objects in her artwork.
The anxious America that Noland depicts developed in part in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassinations, the brutal treatment of protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and Watergate—events that threatened the country’s image as a united, just, and invincible society. Noland has devoted many works to members of the cult of antiheroes, namely Lee Harvey Oswald and Patricia Hearst, who have long fascinated the public. Hearst’s multiple personae, which ranged from fairytale princess to terrorist were subject to media exploitation (a journalistic practice established by her own family’s newspapers). Hearst particularly interested Noland. Transferring silkscreen enlargements of media imagery onto brushed aluminum supports, Noland portrayed her in all her various guises. For example, SLA #4 features a torn newspaper photograph of Hearst and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army or SLA—her “kidnappers” and later comrades—encircling the leader Donald “Cinque Mtume” DeFreeze, who stands before the group’s symbol, a seven-headed cobra.
Like Andy Warhol before her, Noland finds silkscreen to be a particularly appropriate medium with which to exploit her subject matter. By using the techniques of mass production and consumption, she further exaggerates the media’s own language and asks the viewer to question its claims of truth. And for Noland, Hearst’s seeming crisis of identity parallels America’s own uncertain identity and profoundly expresses the disillusionment that the artist seeks to capture in her work.