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Politics is Like Trying to Screw a Cat in the Ass

From “Best of Chicago Art Magazine”, Nov. 2009

Jeriah Hildwine

“Politics is Like Trying to Screw a Cat in the Ass”
– Charles Bukowski, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories, 1983

If in real life politics is difficult and unpleasant at best, in art it is if anything more troublesome.  Give a young artist license to attempt a piece of political art, and odds are dollars to donuts you’ll end up getting some atrocious crucifixion of a dove on an oil drum, only the oil drum is the body of a syringe, and the dove is crying, but the tears are oil, and oh wait, there’s freakin’ dollar bills everywhere and probably some goddamned Golden Arches for good measure.  There’s something about the attempt at expressing political sentiment in a work of art that brings out the worst in many artists, or maybe it just brings the worst artists out of the woodwork.  The phenomenon is worst among students, perhaps, but successful and even well-known artists are brought to ruin, or at least shame, by their forays into political art.

Richard Serra "Stop Bush"

Richard Serra "Stop Bush"

The worst example of this that I can think of is Richard Serra’s piece, Stop Bush, featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.  It’s a drawing in litho crayon on mylar, and the image is the familiar silhouette of the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner, with the title in large letters above.  Serra’s work in lead and steel is legendary, iconic, and monumental; his protest drawing is childish, didactic, and impotent.  The only possible explanation, the only way I can get my head around Serra’s idea here, is that ultimately he decided that ending the war in Iraq was something more important than art, so he used his name recognition to turn a major art event into a platform from which to spread a message which he felt was bigger than aesthetics.

Here’s the problem, Richard:  not only are you preaching to the choir, but they’re all singing and you’re off key.  There was no shortage of public outrage at the Abu Ghraib atrocities, certainly not among the art world crowd frequenting the Biennial.  If an occasional Bush supporter had wandered in, I don’t imagine he or she would have been persuaded by the sight of Serra’s litho drawing, no matter how big a fan of Serra’s sculpture he or she had been.  Nor were Bush’s detractors–and here I can speak from personal experience–moved to passionate action by the sight.  It was really just embarrassing.

Francisco Botero "Pantie Humiliation"

Francisco Botero "Pantie Humiliation"

I said before that Serra’s was the worst example of a well-known artist trying to make political art and disgracing himself in the process, but ultimately I can forgive Serra, because a), his other work is so good, and b), I can empathize with his desire to lend his name to what he felt to be a vital cause.  Not so with the other big name to take on Abu Ghraib, and of course I’m talking about Botero.  Botero’s approach to the atrocity is a polar opposite from Serra’s:  Serra turned his back entirely on his skill set in order to create a piece of propaganda, while Botero appropriated the imagery of the event as a new setting for his plump, naive figures, who remain as stylized, generic, and homogenous as ever.  (Mark Scroggins aptly compares them to “crucified smurfs.”)

SteveMumford_SoldiersSearchingAFarmBaghdad

Steve Mumford "Soldiers Searching A Farm, Baghdad"

Political art need not be so ham-handed.  Alexis Rockman, Steve Mumford, and Scott Greene all use politically-loaded themes as MacGuffins to drive forward their paintings, all of which stand on their own.  Much of Do-Ho Suh’s work similarly uses politics as the foundation, yet like Rockman, Mumford, and Green, is far from propaganda.  The difference is one of loyalty:  these successful politically-oriented artists are driven by a creative rather than an activist motivation.  Their may not directly inspire a purposeful rage in the populace, may not drive the viewer to take up a pet cause, but this is not the function of art.  These artists create objects for contemplation, and while politics may indeed be part of what is contemplated, it is not the sole ends towards which they strive.

Do Fo Suh "Floor" (detail)

Do Fo Suh "Floor" (detail)

Political art is at home in Chicago; last year’s group show Consuming War at the Hyde Park Art Center proposed to address “the ways the American media and consumer culture have manipulated and influenced our perceptions of war, often turning it into a spectacle for American consumption.” The works in that exhibition ran the gamut from the nuanced to the overt; my strongest memory is of Frederick Holland’s painfully didactic American Blend.  I suspect that the phenomenon of ham-handed propaganda interspersed with other, more subtle works is something of a trend in group shows of political art.

Frederick Holland "American Blend"

Frederick Holland "American Blend"

More recently, I have had the pleasure of seeing some politically-oriented work at Packer-Schopf Gallery.  I reviewed the show following its opening reception, and last weekend attended a coffee reception and artist’s talk by Jerry Bleem.  Bleem’s work can be superficially read as either blandly patriotic or impotently dissenting, but both such reads equally miss the point of what Bleem is doing.  The nominal desecration of the flag that Bleem performs by shredding and then crocheting American flags into new forms is in fact a meditative act of contemplation.  Each loop Bleem makes is an act of consideration, of pondering the meaning of this symbol and its significance to him, and to us, as individual Americans.

Jerry Bleem "Nationalism As An Intellectual Exercise"

Jerry Bleem "Nationalism As An Intellectual Exercise"

In his artist’s talk Sunday afternoon, Bleem said, “I am not interested in joining the ranks of artists who are making a political statement.  I am interested in joining the ranks of artists who are saying, ‘We need to be thinking about this.'”  Regarding the extremely laborious process and the investment of time, he said that this investment’s evidence in the work says, “I spent a lot of time thinking about this; you should think about this, too.”  Amen.  While I won’t say that Bleem’s work has massively reconfigured my thinking about the flag, it is certainly clear evidence that Bleem himself has done some real contemplation here.  And that, prolonged contemplation rather than jingoistic reactionary protest, is when political art can transcend mere propaganda.

Bleem mentioned in his artist’s talk his use of studio assistants to do some of his crocheting, or at least some of the prep work, and it is tempting here to spin some fancy rhetoric about the outsourcing of meditation, perhaps with a tie-in to the Medieval Catholic sale of indulgences.  It would make for entertaining rhetoric, but it would be intellectually dishonest:  have no doubt, even with a bit of help, Bleem has more than done his time.

On Saturday, November 7, Sign of the Times opened at Monique Meloche in her new location on Division Street.  More Economics than Poli Sci, the work in Sign of the Times is all about the money.  The works address economic hardship and decline, unemployment, globalization, and recession.  The show features works by Kim Beck, Máximo González, Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, Michael Patterson-Carver, and Carrie Schneider.

Máximo González "Las Fantasmas Que Producen La Guerra"  (not from the current exhibition)

Máximo González "Las Fantasmas Que Producen La Guerra" (not from the current exhibition)

Máximo González makes cut paper collages from out-of-circulation currency.  The best of these is his Animal Freezing Machine, 2006.  In this image, made of small pieces of cut currency affixed directly to the wall, a giant machine (looking a bit like an oversized sea scorpion) scoops up hapless fleeing wildlife and, through an apparently elaborate and painful process, transforms them into ice cream, which is excreted out the apparatus’ rear end into cones which end up for sale in a push cart.  It’s environmentalist about on the level of The Lorax, which is to say a bit simplistic but charming.  The sweetness is cut by the machine’s mechanical malice, and the easy-to-imagine grinding of fur and bone.  The use of brightly colored foreign (to me) currency, with its tightengraving lines, gives the collage a steampunk feeling, of monstrous robots depicted in a Victorian engraving.

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung "In G.O.D. We Trust"

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung "In G.O.D. We Trust"

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung makes videos and, I’ve just learned, interactive on-line video gamesIn G.O.D. We Trust, 2009, shows Barack Obama as a sort of divine superhero who travels the world fixing everything…sort of.  The video is so over-the-top with heavily-laden political imagery that it sort of shoots the moon in terms of ham-handedness.  It’s not one or two hot button issues, it’s EVERYTHING.  This oversaturation and horror vacuii are trademarks of Hung’s videos, and are appropriate for the treatment of politics in the media:  it says, basically, “OH GOD OH GOD EVERYTHING IS BROKEN WE’RE ALL FUCKED,” but the South Park grade animation and upbeat soundtrack make it absolutely hilarious as well, and the irreverent treatment of Obama is a breath of fresh air.  I’ve seen Hung’s work before, at Next, and it’s always good stuff.

Carrie Schneider, whose work I’ve seen at Meloche before, at her old space, has two photographs in Sign of the Times, and although both are color C-prints about consumerism, their approaches to the subject are wildly divergent.  Miss America, 2009, shows a woman face-down in a pile of cheeseburgers, the epitome of gluttony.  Recession shows a woman leaning forward against a vacant storefront, her pose awkward and her body supported only by the thin sheet of glass.  Her shopping bags confirm that she, too, is a consumer.  Of the two images in Sign of the Times, Recession is by far the more sucessful; Miss America‘s signs are too familiar, and unless I’m missing something, too simplistic.

Carrie Schneider "Recession"

Carrie Schneider "Recession"

On the other hand, Recession is a beautiful photograph.  It’s beautiful like Gregory Crewdson, like Stanley Kubrick, like Caravaggio:  classically composed, elegantly lit, and all that.  Not everyone has a knack for that, you do, and I love it.  But it’s not just visual; Recession‘s image and the word “recession” flawlessly support each other.  The shopping bags and vacant storefront are clear signs that it is an economic recession that is meant, but the figure’s posture implies another meaning as well.

Beyond its meaning in economics, the word “recession” can refer to the act of pulling away or withdrawing.  The subject’s posture, slumping forward into the wall, supported by her head or face, turns her into a buttress, supporting the wall.  Although slumped, it is a position of extreme tension; further slumping appears impossible.  If she pulls away, she will fall.  The tension in this image is what gives it its power; the extrapolation to the consumer as the buttress that supports the business before her links this tension to the first meaning, of “recession” in the economic sense.

Making good political art isn’t easy.  Carrie Schneider has done so with Recession.  Máximo González’s work, particularly his Animal Freezing Machine, is another example of political art done well, simultaneously whimsical and creepy, the approach to politics oblique.  More direct is Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung’s video In G.O.D. We Trust, which opts for a saturation bombardment rather than a surgical strike; Hung makes this work to his advantage.  These three works combine to make Sign of the Times a particularly successful show of politically-themed work.  Jerry Bleem’s work over at Packer-Schopf is another example of political art done well, and Curtis Readel’s work in the downstairs gallery is yet another.

All of these artists use different solutions to the problem of making political art, some more direct, others oblique.  What the successes all have in common is that they give us a new perspective on a hot issue, rather than simply reciting an opinion we’ve heard before.  Political art is at its best when it’s art first and foremost, and only incidentally a work of politics.  The alternative is propaganda, and generally not of a very effective kind:  despite Richard Serra’s best efforts, Bush served out his term without impeachment, and we’re still in Iraq.

Editor’s Note: you can find additional discussion on this topic in Gretchen Holmes’ review of Sign of the Times at Monique Meloche.