Guest Review by: Rebecca Rafferty
Political art is about training a critical eye upon — and opening crucial discussion about — pedestaled institutions and systems that can be difficult to approach. “Politics in Art: From Warhol and Rauschenberg to the Present Day,” the current show on view at Gallo Family Gallery in the Strohl Art Center, features more than two dozen artworks by 17 artists, together tackling everything from wars abroad to social unrest at home, from the rise of the elite to the melting middle class, and from assassinations of leaders to police brutalizing the citizens they have sworn to protect.
Visitors are primed for the show with “Chronicles of War/Saints and Martyrs,” a painting by Phyllis Plattner, on display in the entryway of the space. In this work, each vignette is separated by gilded framing and contains a scene of destruction or a vulnerable human form, prone and at the un-mercy of the violent, enforcement arm of a dominating force. Iconic images of St. Sebastian, Christ, the burning WTC towers, wounded soldiers, and prisoners at Abu Ghraib are grouped as one collective portrait of political assault on the human body. The center panel is a replica of “The Third of May 1808” by Francisco Goya, which is seen as among the first great artworks to punch upward.
“I think that is one of the most radical paintings ever painted,” says curator and VACI Artistic Director Don Kimes. “It was the first time in the history of the world that the depiction of war was not about glorification, but about criticism.” Goya’s work is famously sympathetic to the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s occupying army.
The art in this show asks a lot of questions, Kimes says. “But I think they’re really important questions.”
Immediately within the gallery space, Craig Norton’s “Martin Luther King” confronts the viewer with an ugly piece of American history. The tense, collaged work features the calm Civil Rights leader walking past a crowd of white adults and children, their faces contorted by the hate they spew. MLK is literally bigger than those who torment him, his serenity a protective mask — as it is the the only response acceptable to whites — for any turbulence he felt on the inside. This point is underscored by the presence of a cop who looks on, seemingly undisturbed by the abusive crowd but ready to react to any uprising from the oppressed, altogether completing a picture of prison in the open air.
Today, the situation is as bad. Our climate of police brutality against black men, women, and children is met by the collective horror of some and the collective shrug of too many. Witnesses are idle, too apathetic or afraid to challenge the uniformed mob, even in the instances where innocents are murdered. This particular problem is addressed in Bill Dunlap’s oil-on-canvas triptych, “Death of Eric Garner,” and his “Death of Walter Scott,” a single oil-on-canvas.
In each of the paintings, while the victim is tackled or looked upon by relatively readable figures in uniforms, he himself is almost entirely reduced to a dark smear on the ground, the assault on the body complete to the point of near anonymity.
The exhibit complemented Chautauqua’s week on “Art & Politics,” and at one point included an addition artwork, artist James Sham’s life-size replica of an attack drone like those flown over Afghanistan, which was only displayed during that week. The 40-foot sculpture was attached to the roof of the art center, bringing a taste of terror to Chautauqua’s idyllic grounds.
Inclusion of Sham’s sculpture acknowledges the disturbing fact that the most drone strikes by far were conducted under President Obama’s tenure. This work balances the presence of William Dunlap’s celebratory portrait of Obama, “1st Among Equals for the 44th Time,” created for the inauguration of the first black president.
“This is not the same man who came into office, who is putting the drones out there,” Kimes says.
The two works together emphasize the importance to be critical even of our most promising leaders, and observant of the way they develop while operating within an oppressive system.
Similarly, “Untitled 2001,” a screen print by Ligorano Reese located near the entrance of the gallery is balanced by “Line Up,” located in a smaller room within the gallery, which Kimes has dubbed the “War and Peace” room. The former piece portrays George W. Bush in the moment that he was notified of the attack on the World Trade Center. The unabashed shock that registers in his eyes makes for an almost-sympathetic portrayal of the man.
But the latter piece, by the same artist, condemns Dubya (and several other political players) for his arguably criminal, warmongering role in post-9/11 international affairs, envisioning the group’s fate through a grid of mug shot-like portraits.
Kimes says that the exhibit has had an overwhelmingly positive response. “I think if I’d done this show 15 years ago, I’d have had people coming at me,” he says. That reception is a credit to Chautauqua’s current community and audience, of its willingness to be confronted with that which has no easy answer.
And these subjects can certainly bewilder. Robert Rauschenberg’s “Untitled” 1970 print is an anxious cloud of clippings, images and headlines drawn from newspapers of the day, reflecting and distilling the heaviest of concerns, presented without comment or consolation.
Three works selected from Carol Jacobsen’s “Conviction” series are enlarged arrest records of women arrested for action — Rosa Parks, Harriet (the original spy) Tubman and Alice Paul — and a great reminder, as we criticize or applaud the Black Lives Matter activists, that revolution requires resistance. Movements are messy, must break decorum and upset the status quo, which can be uncomfortable, but disruption is the very point. Things only look tidy when summed up, comfortably, from across a safe span of time.
Rebecca Rafferty is an artist and writer based in Rochester, New York, and is the Arts & Entertainment Staff Writer for Rochester City Newspaper. Her work has also appeared in Afterimage, Ceramics: Art & Perception, Rochester Insomniac, and 12ozProphet.com. She keeps a blog at theiconoclassed.com.