Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Unpacking the issue: Jessica Dawson

After Jessica Dawson's review of Picturing Politics, a little brew-ha-ha erupted over it, the most visible of which is over on Jeffry Cudlin's blog. Mostly, the article left a few of us wondering what she was referencing and why the vitriol.
Contributors to the exhibition "Picturing Politics 2008: Artists Speak to Power" wield opinions like loaded muskets at a battle reenactment -- they're packing so much firepower that they quickly overwhelm.
If people are overwhelmed by any of the pieces, they haven't been paying attention. (Understandably, the reviewer is finishing a degree in art history at GW, so maybe she hasn't been.) The work exercises an approachable restraint in most cases... with the exception of watching a Black man get slapped around by a White man for eight minutes... or that six channel video opera in the basement that plunges the viewer into light deprivation. Otherwise, restrained.
The result reminds us how hard it is to get politically minded exhibitions right.
We need a judge on this one. If right means "correct," then who has written the rules on this subject and where might they be found? Sometimes political art piddles in the pool of political cartoon, mining a subject for a punchline. I'm not laughing when looking at any of these pieces, and that's a good thing. If right means "conservative," well... frankly I've yet to encounter conservative political art. It's kinda like conservative journalism which, as we've recently learned, gets talking points from The White House. But, I digress.
With few exceptions, "Picturing Politics" batters us with its liberal agenda -- an agenda as rife with polemic as the rightist politics its artists oppose. Its artists distrust surveillance, doubt the media and hate George Bush. So what's new?
Well, I wouldn't expect apologia. As for the last statement, where does she get this? I suppose at a cursory glance a viewer might glean that interpretation from America's Grave (which is in reality a critique of the corruption that has occurred during this presidency due to fanatical religious extremism in the most conservative wing of the Republican party, how that has trampled on civil liberties, how there is an historic precedent for such action (slavery), and how it has bankrupt the value of the word America... but I think Dick, Rummy, Condi, Falwell, Robertson, Osteen, Parsley, etc. take some of the blame - it isn't just Bushy. Don't forget to tithe folks!) But I don't think that judgment fairly comments on any of the other work because commentary on The Media, surveillance, or a hatred of George Bush simply. isn't. there.

But, not getting it "right," and "liberal agenda" makes me wonder if Dawson has straight blond hair. (What's a blog if not for a few zingers?)
What's missing is the patience to unpack the issues -- immigration, gay politics, the invasion of Iraq. Too many of these artists take the easy road.
Well, space and time are major considerations: space on the part of the gallery, time on the part of viewer attention spans. But those are weak excuses. There is a point about a thesis to a work, or a body of work, that should never be over-looked, and I'll wager most of these pieces are building on the body of that thesis rather than encapsulating the whole. It's how we artists roll! No one single piece will unpack the issues, or more appropriately, an issue, because each issue is bigger than one work or one room. Only art historians and survey texts roll up the body of an artist's work into a single work... two if you're Picasso... three if you are Michelangelo... and the footprint of the Sistine Ceiling is at least twice that of the Arlington Arts Center.

It is evident that "what is missing is the patience to unpack the issues." And the onus is on you (the viewer). It always has been. If you lack the patience to unpack them, then pack up. Art is intended to contemplate when not decorating. The artist addresses the issue and helps further awareness, opinion, angle, and interpretation. History unpacks the issues. Criticism unpacks the issues. Dialogue unpacks the issues. Action to correct unpacks the issues. Art is the catalyst, and the job of the artist (in this case) is to leave enough open to the viewer to start the unpacking.

"Artist's Medium: The Sledgehammer?" Not at this show. That was playing at Transformer a couple weeks back. Here's the highlight reel.

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