“Picturing Politics 2008: Artists Speak to Power,” at Arlington Arts Center (3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington). Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit runs through Sept. 27. Call 703- 248-6800 or visit arlingtonartscenter.org.
Political art in general is art with an definite life cycle to it. The more specific its subject matter, the shorter shelf life it tends to have. The daily political cartoon newspapers run would be a classic case in point. As time goes by, the horror du jour passes out of radar range, replaced by other concerns. Political art that focuses on the first becomes a tad stale at this point, and clearly passes its expiration date once the problem is solved, or crisis averted, etc. With the passage of a fairly significant period of time, that same art becomes something of a historical artifact. About the only way to escape this life cycle is to make the art more vague and thus applicable to a variety of events and human nature in general.
“Picturing Politics 2008” covers an enormous range both politically and artistically speaking. Although one must note the somewhat curious absence of traditional political cartoons.
At least four of the artists here use video in their work. One of the most poignant, yet quizzical pieces is the video entitled “Passive Resistance” by Jefferson Pinder and Matt Ravenstahl. Here we see two men, one African-American and one European-American, displayed in split-screen fashion; we are shown only their heads – and the hand of the European-American repeatedly slapping the face of the African-American. At first blush, one tends to see this as a racial issue, and seeing how as the African- American never rises to strike back in kind, we are also quickly drawn to the way freedom fighters stood up to racism in the 50s and 60s. This slap-a-thon lasts for 5 minutes, giving the viewer plenty of time to consider the dynamics at hand – you go from memories of Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson, to Gandhi, which leads you away from the notion of racism, and to questioning whether this is about race at all. This is after all just two guys. We see no context to this situation, and thus can draw no conclusions as to what the protagonist’s motives are.
The slapper shows no emotion throughout, only once breaking the “fourth wall” with a quick glance at the viewer fairly late in the video. At first, you may take this as a production quality flaw, but since the two players are the artists themselves, we can be sure that there is nothing here they don’t want included. It seems that the slapper is ever so slightly taking notice of his surroundings and his appearance within.
Slowly, the slapping victim begins to respond to each measured slap in an increasingly visible manner. One should note here that these are not physically punishing slaps, but rather an insulting attempt at intimidation. As such this scenario is far more psychological than physical.
More so, it’s interesting to see how this power-play dynamic shifts through the course of time. Though the bully is a tad slow to pick up on it – and may in fact never really wake up to it – with each successive blow he increasingly loses face. The intimidating force he exacts on his victim actually energizes the resolve of his victim to never back down, no matter what. In this video, we see the victim become more and more demonstrative with each successive blow, even reaching a point where he seems to taunt the bully. The bully tiring of all this, and ever so slightly becoming aware that others are watching, realizes that one more slap won’t get him to the goal he seeks. In fact, a hundred or even a thousand more slaps won’t get him there. Thankfully, he stops his piggish behavior, albeit with a begrudgingly newfound respect for the enemy he has created in the process. Good thing.
Played out to further ends, the victim would, in fact, eventually rise up and strike back; however, the first strike would not be an irritating slap, but rather a wholly disproportionate blow to settle the score for the cumulative effect of the actions against him. Note the French Revolution and all those powered wigs that wound up at the bottom of a basket. As the old saying goes … “Never try the patience of a patient man.”
Another video work that employs visual isolation devoid of context is Mary Coble’s video, “Aversion: Session One.” Here we see a hand and only a hand. The hand lays still then rises and falls – repeated time after time. It seems a metaphor for the way an individual may be willing to act, but if the societal body as a whole is unwilling to go along, it’s all a futile effort. In fact, it’s the artist’s hand as she endures shock aversion therapy – electroshocks given to homosexuals while they are shown photos of men and women.
Of course, we all know how this one plays out – the homosexual gets zapped repeatedly and remains homosexual. Would electric jolts make you change your sexual attraction? Speak for yourself – all I know is lightning could strike me and I’d still be looking at women. When are we going to grow up and leave these people be? Jeesh … “Love thy neighbor as thyself” … Hello … duh … no zap-zap, Ok, people? Work on loving yourself before exacting all that inner hatred on the rest of the world.
Across the hall from Cobles’ video is the work of Renee Stout. She has several excellent works here. I like the Truth Telling Kit best – a silver hinged box contains a camera, a disc drive for recording information, vials of fluid we assume is truth serum and a polygraph-like tape device, Some dental thing clearly conveys the notion that this might be a fun box to have used on you. Another of her works asks the perpetual question of who authorities are, and how did they get there?
Helga Thomson hangs a grid work of ID tag portraits, seemingly asking what is identity? And how do we identify it? All set off against a reflective mylar background, it brings you to wonder how you would be depicted here.
Jose Ruiz’s multimedia installation work occupies one of the two gallery spaces downstairs. Ruiz brings us face to face with the issues of illegal immigrants. He uses a battery-powered drill gun and paint roller in a masterful tongue-in-cheek play on the communist hammer and sickle logo. As a piece of graphic design, this one is pure genius.
The assemblage has its weak points, but its strengths rule this space. Ruiz made a folding step ladder out of sheet rock. Sheet rock not being a stress-worthy building material, you’d be well advised not to climb too high on this thing. Video footage of wild coyotes plays under the FOX news logo band, and against a soundtrack of Fox newscasters fulminating about illegal immigrants.
Against another wall, a digital composition photo depicts Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Don Imus in one face. It has a creepy quality to it, but in the end seems to be a nameless Caucasian office worker – the exact sort of guy we imagine would complain about illegals while hiring them for cheap labor to clean his house, mow his lawn, roof his house, etc.
As for political art, past it’s prime. Randall Packer and John Anderson give us an expansive over-the-top history of the disastrous Bush administration. Keeping in mind that the most presidential thing Bush has done of late is watch guys swimming in China, he seems the lamest of lame ducks about now – even the Russians are ignoring him. We’re all focused on making a better choice this time around, and silently hoping Bush doesn’t do anything too stupid in the interim. Thankfully, such is the time-date stamp on political art.